When CBS studio executives approached Mary Tyler Moore about the concept of a new TV sitcom about a divorced working-class woman making it on her own, she was hesitant to commit to the project. She feared her new role might suffer in comparison to her previous 1960s role of Laura Petrie in “The Dick Van Dyke Show”
Divorce was a controversial subject in the early 1970s. Incidentally, Vivian Vance played the first divorce lady, Vivian Bagley, with her young son Sherman in the early 1960s sitcom “The Lucy Show.”
Nevertheless, CBS studio executives feared that the TV viewing audience might think that Laura Petrie might have left her TV husband Rob on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” so, they created Mary Richards to be a single woman of 30, who suffered a recent broken engagement of two years and moved to Minneapolis to start a new life.
Mary Richards rented a third-floor studio apartment in a 19yh-century Victorian House.
Her downstairs landlady, Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman) was a political activist and involved with the Women’s Liberation movement of the early 1970s. She has a husband named Lars, who was a dermatologist and never seen on the screen. Her precocious daughter Bess (Lisa Gerritsen) addressed her by her first name instead of calling her ‘mother.’
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Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) was Mary’s upstairs neighbor and best friend. She was a single woman, who worked as a window dresser at Hemphill’s Department Store. Although she was insecure about her appearance, she was outgoing and went out on dates. She usually made wisecracks about her disastrous dates.
At WJM-TV’s Six O’Clock News, Mary worked as an associate producer. Her boss, Lou Grant, (Ed Asner) had a tough and grumpy demeanor, which hid his kind-hearted nature. All her co-workers call him Lou, but Mary always referred to him as Mr. Grant. He was married in the beginning of the series, but later divorced his wife Edie (Priscilla Morrill).
Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod) was the head news writer and married family man. He and Mary were very close friends. His only gripe was with the six o’clock anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), who bumbled the news items during the broadcast hour. Lou and Murray criticized him frequently for his many shortcomings but never was fired for his mistakes.
Sometimes, the black weatherman, Gordy Howard (John Amos) would cover-up his slip up while on the air. However, Ted vainly saw himself as the country’s best newsman. His ditzy girlfriend, Georgette Franklin (Georgia Engel) was devoted to him. They would later get married in Mary’s studio apartment by a minister (John Ritter) wearing tennis shorts.
Many women’s issues came up on the early 1970s feminist sitcom. Such topics as equal pay for women, the pill, women’s lib, dating, pre-marital sex and day-to-day office grind were all woven into the comedic plots.
By the end of the fourth season, Valerie Harper left for her own spinoff “Rhoda.” Her character moved back to New York City to be closer to family and got married. John Amos also left the show for the TV African-American dad James Evans in “Good Times.”
Betty White arrived on the sitcom in the fifth season. She played 40-something Sue Ann Nivens, the WJM-TV cooking hostess of the “Happy Homemaker Show,” who was man-hungry for Lou Grant. However, she has a sleazy affair with Phyllis Lindstrom’s unseen husband Lars. Upset by the disturbing news, Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) confronted the other woman and shoved her into a giant cake.
After the fifth season, Leachman left for own spinoff flop “Phyllis.” Meanwhile, Mary grew tired of her studio apartment and moved into a high-rise one bedroom apartment. Georgette and Ted adopted an 8-year-old boy David (Robbie Rist). Then, they had a baby one year later.
In 1977, the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” ended with a tearful finale. The sitcom was still top in its ratings. WJM-TV was bought out by new management. Lou, Mary, and Murray were fired from their position due to its low ratings. Ted remained as news anchorman, although he may be responsible for the news station failure to attract viewers.
Harper (Rhoda) and Leachman (Phyllis) made cameo appearances in their former roles. At the end of the episode, Mary, Ted, Georgette, Murray, Sue Ann, and Lou were embraced in a final farewell hug together. The following fall, Ed Asner returned in the one-hour drama series “Lou Grant.” And as for MacLeod, he became Captain Merrill Stubbing of “The Love Boat.”
Carl. G. White lives in Napa and writes regularly about classic TV shows, among other topics.