In television there is only one Mary, like there will always be only one Lucy. And when these icons leave us, our sadness is lightened somewhat by the remarkable legacies they leave behind.
With Mary Tyler Moore, that legacy is primarily comprised of 158 episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show and 168 episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Together these shows feature some of the finest situation comedy ensemble work the medium has ever seen or ever will see.
On The Dick Van Dyke Show she was the last one cast and the least experienced participant in a show that was both a classic family sitcom and a classic workplace sitcom.
It’s a series that is now more than 50 years old but hasn’t aged at all. Replace Sally’s typewriter with a computer and the scenes in the Alan Brady Show writer’s room could take place today. Smart and sophisticated, but never too sophisticated for a master class in baggy-pants slapstick, the series remains one of the standards by which excellence in situation comedy should be measured.
It didn’t take long for Mary to find her place among such brilliant comedy veterans as Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam and series creator Carl Reiner. Seemingly overnight she emerged as a gifted comedic actress in episodes such as “My Blonde-Haired Brunette,” “The Curious Thing About Women,” “The Life and Love of Joe Coogan” and “Pink Pills and Purple Parents” among many others.
I think of her most from this series in the Petries’ New Rochelle home, garbed in capri pants that generated controversy back in the day, both for the break in tradition of women wearing dresses on television, and for their form-fitting quality that gave male viewers one more reason to watch.
Rob and Laura at home gave us a glimpse into an idealized suburban lifestyle to which many of us still aspire. Who wouldn’t love to attend one of those delightful parties at 148 Bonnie Meadow Rd., where witty conversation is exchanged, and guests and hosts perform polished song-and-dance numbers in the living room?
It was a tough act to follow, but when Mary returned to television, this time as a headliner, the series would equal its predecessor in quality and genre impact. Mary Richards was not the same as Laura Petrie – though memories of Laura prevented the new series from creating the character as a divorcee.
She was a single woman out on her own, entering the workforce at a time when that was still evolving from a novelty into a familiar lifestyle. Mary Richards became a feminist icon and that’s great – but it wouldn’t have mattered if the show weren’t funny as well. And it was.
Mary Tyler Moore carried two valuable lessons from her first classic series into her second – building memorable home and workplace settings that could each inspire good stories, and the importance of being surrounded by a cast of characters that brought their own métier to the mix.
If you go back to the series now, as I’m sure so many of you will, you’ll see that while Mary gets top billing, most of the laughs are generated by those around her: Rhoda’s sass and Ted’s bumbling news broadcasts; Murray’s insults and Phyllis’s self-centeredness; Lou Grant’s bulldog bark and Sue Ann’s lascivious come-ons.
Mary was the center around which these iconic characters circled, reacting with bemusement or disbelief or appreciation at their antics. But when she was called on to deliver a big comic moment, as in the series of mishaps leading up to her Teddy Award in “Put on a Happy Face” or the unforgettable funeral scene in “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” she always delivered.
With any television show we can look back on famous moments and classic episodes. But with The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, what is more appropriately recalled is their remarkable consistency. Out of more than 300 combined episodes, you can count the ones that didn’t work on one hand.
There is so much more to remember with Mary – the other shows she headlined, her Oscar-nominated performance in Ordinary People, her early uncredited work on Richard Diamond, Private Eye and in memorable guest spots on Bachelor Father and Wanted: Dead or Alive, her Emmy Awards and the many other classic shows that carried the MTM Enterprises logo.
But for now we’ll celebrate her through her best work, and head back to our DVDs for one more “Oh, Rob,” and one more visit to the WJM newsroom. If you’re like me, one won’t be enough. How lucky we are to have so many shows to experience and enjoy whenever we wish.