Unveiling the Facts About The Mary Tyler Moore Show reveals how this iconic TV series revolutionized the portrayal of women on the small screen. The show introduced viewers to the independent, intelligent, and spirited career woman, Mary Richards. This groundbreaking series shed light on the challenges faced by single working women in society, marking a significant shift in television narratives. Though some aspects may seem dated today, the show accurately represented the era’s norms, setting the stage for future TV characters like Elaine Benes and Liz Lemon. Mary Richards, with her spunk and determination, remains an enduring role model for generations to come.
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1. A Dick Van Dyke show (no, not that one) helped to launch Mary’s solo sitcom career.
When The Dick Van Dyke Show ended in 1966, Mary Tyler Moore was poised to make the leap into films. She had inked a deal with Universal Pictures and starred in three features in rapid succession, only one of which (Thoroughly Modern Millie, with Julie Andrews) won critical praise and performed well at the box office. With her marquee value fading, Moore leaped at the offer to reunite with her old co-star in the 1969 CBS variety special Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman. The show was written by Sam Denoff and Bill Persky, the same duo who’d written for Van Dyke’s sitcom; their inspiration for the special was a minor complaint Van Dyke’s wife, Marjorie, once made—that very often, when she was out in public with her husband, she’d hear comments about him “cheating” on Laura (Moore). The special was a critical and ratings success, and based on the strength of those Nielsen numbers, CBS offered Moore a half-hour slot on their network with a guarantee of 24 episodes, no pilot necessary.
After the conclusion of The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1966, Mary Tyler Moore set her sights on a career in films. She signed a deal with Universal Pictures and appeared in three movies one after the other, but only one of them (Thoroughly Modern Millie, alongside Julie Andrews) garnered critical acclaim and performed well at the box office. As Moore’s popularity began to wane, she eagerly accepted an offer to reunite with her former co-star in the 1969 CBS variety unique Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman. The special, written by Sam Denoff and Bill Persky, who had also written for Van Dyke’s sitcom, was inspired by a remark made by Van Dyke’s wife, Marjorie. She often heard comments from the public insinuating that Van Dyke was “cheating” on Laura (Moore). With its critical acclaim and high ratings, the special paved the way for CBS to offer Moore her own half-hour show, guaranteeing 24 episodes without the need for a pilot.
2. Mary Richards was originally a divorcée.
During the initial brainstorming for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the creative team imagined Mary Richards as a recently divorced 30-year-old who had relocated to a new apartment and was in search of employment following her husband’s departure. However, CBS network researchers cautioned series co-creator Allan Burns about four elements that viewers, particularly the influential “mainstream audience in Peoria,” might not accept in their households. These factors were New Yorkers, Jews, divorced women, and men with mustaches, which they believed could potentially lead to the show’s premature demise.
Despite the initial warning, Burns and his team decided to keep the bold and outspoken character of Rhoda, a Jewish New Yorker who Valerie Harper portrayed. Interestingly, Rhoda didn’t fare well with early audiences but gradually won them over after a few episodes. However, they did concede on the idea of Mary being a divorcée, as preview audiences mistakenly associated her with Laura Petrie, Mary Tyler Moore’s character from The Dick Van Dyke Show, and criticized her for leaving a nice guy like Dick Van Dyke. Instead, they transformed Mary into a woman who had recently ended a two-year engagement and was now seeking a fresh start in her own apartment, supporting herself, and enjoying the freedom of being single.
3. The MTM kitten was found in a Minneapolis shelter.
Grant Tinker, who was married to Moore at the time, came up with the idea to name their new production company MTM Enterprises. Moore didn’t object, as this meant the company would bear her name. During an early staff meeting, someone suggested a clever idea: since MTM was a small company, why not have a kitten meow like the MGM lion? They found an orange kitten at an animal shelter in Minneapolis, chosen for its fur color resembling that of a lion. This kitten, named Mimsie, became the star of the production tags for various MTM shows. Mimsie lived a long life until the age of 20, having been adopted by a crew member and taken to San Bernardino.
4. Gavin MacLeod auditioned for the role of Lou Grant.
At the young age of 18, Allan See experienced hair loss while studying drama at New York’s Ithaca College. This posed a challenge for his acting career as he was mostly bald upon graduation. Determined to succeed, he adopted the name Gavin MacLeod and carved out a steady path playing tough characters, leveraging his bald head and robust physique. However, fate took an unexpected turn when MTM co-founder Grant Tinker invited MacLeod to audition for the iconic role of Lou Grant. MacLeod, believing he could bring something special to the warm and amiable character of Murray Slaughter, requested to read for that role instead. Surprisingly, the producers agreed, especially after Ed Asner’s audition for the role of Mary’s boss. This twist of events would shape MacLeod’s career in a remarkable way.
5. The producers had Jack Cassidy in mind when they created the character of Ted Baxter.
Cassidy initially declined the offer, as he had recently portrayed a conceited and good-looking actor on the sitcom He & She. He didn’t want to be typecast as a comedic fool. The role was eventually given to Ted Knight. However, when The Mary Tyler Moore Show became a hit, Cassidy had a change of heart and appeared as Hal, Ted’s self-absorbed and preening brother, in the captivating episode titled “Cover Boy.”
6. Ted Knight was living paycheck-to-paycheck when he was cast as Ted Baxter
Lyle Waggoner, a successful cast member of The Carol Burnett Show, was considered as the second choice for the anchorman role. However, he opted to stay with his established series rather than join an untested one. Meanwhile, Jennifer Aniston’s father, John, auditioned for the character of Ted and received callbacks, but the producers had reservations about casting him. It was producer Dave Davis who discovered the comedic talent of Ted Knight during a local production of the Broadway comedy You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running. Impressed by Knight’s hilarious performance, Davis recommended him to the team, suggesting that he audition for the role of Ted Baxter.
Despite the initial expectation of a handsome heartthrob, the silver-haired Knight surprised the audition panel. Wearing a thrift store blue blazer, he captivated them with his commanding voice and comedic talent. In that brief reading, he added depth to the anchorman character, showcasing a (confident and arrogant exterior), while subtly revealing vulnerability and humanity within. The MTM staff was impressed and inspired by his performance, leading to new story ideas for the show’s newsroom setting.
7. Ted Knight hated being confused with “Ted Baxter” and almost quit the show.
During the third season of the show, an unexpected encounter took place between actor Ted Knight and co-creator Allan Burns. Knight, with tears streaming down his face, expressed his struggle portraying the character Ted Baxter. “I can’t do it,” Knight cried. “I can’t play Ted Baxter anymore. Everybody thinks I’m stupid and I’m not. I’m intelligent and well-read, but everyone treats me like I’m a schmuck.” As Knight gathered himself and prepared for rehearsal, co-creator James L. Brooks entered the room and playfully greeted him as “Ah, Ted—the world’s favorite schmuck.” This incident highlights the complexities and perceptions often associated with actors and the characters they bring to life.
Fortunately, Knight persevered. Throughout the series, his character experiences personal growth, including finding a romantic partner, getting married, and occasionally, “very special” episodes that showcase his depth beyond mere bravado and foolishness.
8. Hazel Frederick was seen in every single episode of the series.
Imagine this: It was a chilly day in downtown Minneapolis back in 1969. Hazel, an ordinary woman, was out running errands at Donaldson’s Department Store. As she stepped out onto Nicollet Avenue, one of the busiest streets in the city, something caught her eye. A young, attractive brunette was walking ahead of her, heading into traffic. Suddenly, the woman stopped and joyfully tossed her hat into the air. Little did Hazel know, that brunette was none other than Mary Tyler Moore, and a film crew was discreetly capturing this moment for the opening credits of her upcoming show. They wanted it to feel authentic, so they didn’t halt the traffic, and Mary had to navigate her way across the street amidst the hustle and bustle. That freeze frame became iconic.
9. Mary Richards was “evicted” from her old apartment.
In the first five seasons of the show, Mary Richards resided in Apartment D, which was nestled within a beautiful 1892 Queen Anne Victorian home. This charming abode featured elegant Palladian windows and a graceful iron balcony. Interestingly, the homeowner, Paula Giese, initially believed that her house would only be featured in a one-time documentary, not a TV series. However, once The Mary Tyler Moore Show gained popularity, Giese found herself inundated with curious visitors day and night, eagerly inquiring if “Mary” was present. The situation even escalated to the point where tour buses filled with devoted fans began flocking to her doorstep.
During the spring of 1973, the Gieses received news that MTM producers would return to film additional outdoor shots of their house for future use in the opening credits. Paula, a local political activist, swiftly took action by hanging a series of “Impeach Nixon” banners on the exterior of her home to discourage the cameramen. Her clever tactic proved successful, ultimately leading to Mary Richards moving to a new high-rise early in season six. Explore the fascinating story behind Paula Giese’s efforts to thwart the filming of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in this intriguing account.
10. Valerie Harper almost didn’t get the role of Rhoda because she was too attractive.
The character of Rhoda, Mary’s neighbor and eventual best friend, was initially described as “a self-made loser—overweight, not good with hair and make-up, and self-deprecating.” Despite Valerie Harper being the producers’ top choice for the role, there was a challenge: she was beautiful. In an attempt to fit the character, the producers asked her to “frump herself up a bit”, but she still looked too pretty. So, just like with the characters of Ted Baxter and Murray Slaughter, the producers reconsidered and reshaped Rhoda’s character to match the actor. They decided that even if Rhoda was attractive, she would be the kind of woman who didn’t see it herself and regularly put herself down.
11. The script supervisor (and Phyllis’s daughter) rescued the pilot episode.
The MTM brass made an unconventional decision for the premiere episode. They decided to perform it twice, with a studio audience watching the dress rehearsal on Tuesday. They also recorded the rehearsal to allow the cast and production staff to evaluate it before the actual filming on Friday. However, things didn’t go as expected. The actors didn’t receive the laughs they were anticipating. A post-show poll revealed that the audience disliked Rhoda and felt she was too mean to sweet Mary in the opening scene. This perception cast a shadow over the rest of the episode.
While the writers were scrambling to find a solution for their show without a major overhaul, script supervisor Marjorie Mullen had a brilliant idea. The show would begin with Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman) and her young daughter, Bess (Lisa Gerritsen), introducing Mary to their new apartment. To everyone’s surprise, “that dumb, awful Rhoda” was found washing the window on the balcony, thinking it was going to be her place. Mullen’s stroke of genius was to give Bess an additional line, not originally in the script. She said, Aunt Rhoda’s really a lot of fun! Mom hates her … ”. This small change worked wonders! If a little girl found Rhoda cool, then it was perfectly fine for the audience to like her too. And during Friday’s taping, the laughter was perfectly timed, hitting all the right spots.
12. The men in the cast weren’t sorry to see Valerie Harper leave the series.
The character Rhoda gained enough popularity to have her own series, and the “boys” on the show were happy to see her go. Not to discredit Valerie Harper, who was known for her pleasant and cooperative nature. However, during Rhoda’s time on the show, many episodes revolved around “the girls,” taking place at Mary’s apartment rather than the newsroom, resulting in less screen time for the male counterparts.
13. The “designer” of Mary’s infamous green dress met a tragic end in real life.
Barbara Colby made a memorable appearance as Sherry, a character in the “Will Mary Richards Go To Jail?” episode. Her performance was so impressive that she was brought back for another episode. In “You Try to Be a Nice Guy,” Sherry seeks Mary’s help in finding a job to maintain her parole. Eventually, she explores a career in fashion design and surprises Mary with a daring green dress. This leads to a priceless reaction from Ted Baxter. Interestingly, Colby was given a co-starring role in the spin-off series Phyllis alongside Cloris Leachman in 1975. Tragically, after filming only three episodes, Colby and a male companion were attacked and shot in a parking lot in Venice, California. While her companion briefly survived to provide a description of the assailants, the case remains unsolved, adding to the mystery surrounding her untimely death.
14. Mary really did have to struggle to keep a straight face during the “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode.
Considered one of the greatest sitcom episodes, this particular installment delved into a somber topic: the passing of Chuckles the Clown, the beloved host of a children’s show on WJM. (He’d been dressed as Peter Peanut to serve as Grand Marshall of a circus parade and a rogue elephant tried to shell him.) While Mary was tasked with maintaining a solemn demeanor, the newsroom couldn’t help but crack jokes about his peculiar demise. During rehearsals, Mary struggled to suppress her laughter whenever Chuckles’ alter ego, Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo (one of Chuckles’ many characters), was mentioned. In her autobiography, she revealed that she had to bite her cheeks hard to stifle her laughter during the actual taping of the episode, leaving them raw.
15. It was the first U.S. network series to break character and feature a curtain call.
After seven successful seasons, Grant Tinker and Mary Tyler Moore made the bold decision to conclude their show while it was still enjoying strong ratings. Rather than risking a decline in quality and potential cancellation, they opted to end on a high note. This finale stood out among others as it allowed the characters to bid farewell within the show’s context. Additionally, Mary Tyler Moore took the opportunity to introduce each of her castmates to the audience for a final curtain call, creating a memorable and unique closing moment.
After All, by Mary Tyler Moore
Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, by by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Archive of American Television interviews with Edward Asner, Gavin MacLeod, and Mary Tyler Moore