The Mary Tyler Moore Show may be retiring at the end of this season but the Mary Tyler Moore empire will, with luck, go on forever
Laid back though they are, Los Angelenos can be as touchy as anyone else when the karma feels wrong. Recently, a California magazine had a brainwave that scored high on its editorial Richter scale: Superstar women—and how the men have the supporting roles. Strong in the knowledge of an idea whose trendy time had come, the magazine’s writer and photographer team set out on a round of interviews with the stars: Helen Reddy and her husband, AnnMargret and hers, Carol Burnett and hers...
And then they came to Mary Tyler Moore and Grant Tinker, and things came unstuck. Against the advice of his aides, Tinker agreed to a photo session and interview. The result, he conceded later, was ghastly, and though the Tinkers could refuse the photographer’s prime request— “I’m not a performing monkey,” Tinker exploded when asked for a gag shot, propped up by his wife—they had no control over the printed word, which suggested that Tinker was little more than a bootless appendage, incidental punctuation to Mary’s drive. Tinker, a former NBC vice-president who built the Mary Tyler Moore Empire and is nobody’s hangeron, fired off a memo to his aides: “Next time you talk me into something, you’re fired.” Breathed one of them later: “Nice sense of humor, that man.”
Indeed, Tinker is a rarity in a town that regards show business as something protected by the Constitution, where everybody else does shtick, and where most people are praying that Barbra Streisand will fall flat on her prat with her remake of A Star Is Born. Tinker is an unmalicious, self-deprecating WASP who gives the impression he knows that there are other things in the world beside the MTM empire. His shows have a civilized sheen to them, reflected in the fact that the Tinkers are sailing the flagship Mary Tyler Moore Show off the air at the end of the season even though it is still seen regularly by some 35 million viewers in the United States and Canada every week. “Enough is enough,” says Tinker. “It’ll be seven years,” says his wife. “I want to go out when we’re still good, not hang around for people to say, Oh them again.”
I cannot myself imagine any man born of woman, or woman either, being bored
with anything Mary Tyler Moore chose to appear in, even if she sat on a stool reciting the engineering specifics of the Henderson storm sewer. Others give her credit for revolutionizing the image of television heroines, for seeing that Mary Richards demands equal pay with the men, for having her spend the night with her boyfriend, for playing a single career-woman with dignity, not for cheap laughs; all true, but immaterial. Nor does it bother me that last year and this the MTM show has been running slightly behind its spin-offs, Rhoda and Phyllis. And let others tout the trailblazing virtues of Norman Lear’s shows, such as All In The Family, Maude and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Mary Tyler Moore can hold you on the edge of a laugh until it hurts, and uses charm like a boarding party. Her grin, lopsided and erratic, and her timing, balanced and precise, are offensive weapons. She can take a simple phrase like “C’monnn, Mr. Grant” and play strange obbligatos on it—her voice running up and down the scale, darkening or lightening with entreaty, incredulity, anger, or a mix of all three. She effortlessly transcends material that is still formula stuff, if among the best of its kind. In short, she is a marvel, and many years from now, long after the specifics of all her shows, past and future, have been forgotten, people will still have a clear image of Mary Tyler Moore, and when they remember her they will smile.
Yet in the beginning, the MTM show came close to not being done at all. After the Dick Van Dyke Show, which gave her stardom in the Sixties, went off the air, CBS offered Mary Tyler Moore her own series. To that end in 1970 Tinker hired two young writers—Jim Brooks, creator of Room 222, and Allan Burns, who had written a lot of He And She, a one-season wonder too late appreciated—to develop a character for his wife to play and the vehicle to play it in. “Our idea was that Mary should be divorced,” Burns explains, “and was getting over it by moving to a new town, meeting new people, making new friends—including Rhoda, her Jewish friend from New York. We didn’t know for some time quite what the job should be. Before we’d decided, we were called to New York to have a meeting with the CBS program department. Mike Dann was then
senior vice-president in charge and he turned to this huge fat man who’d run some preliminary testing of our concept of the characters. ‘Tell these guys what your findings are,’ Dann said. ‘Well,’ said the fat man, ‘we know that certain things won’t work, viewers just will not watch certain things.’ And then he ran down a list: ‘People from New York, people with moustaches, Jewish people, and divorced people.’ ”
Bums and Brooks gave their rebuttal. At least, they said, Rhoda wouldn’t have a moustache, and weren’t most people in the Western world, except Italy, touched by divorce?—it wasn’t leprosy. It didn’t do them much good. The CBS programmers were affable—“we’re not about to tell you not to have Mary divorced but we do advise against it,” they murmured, the implication being that if Brooks and Burns went ahead with their idiocy they’d find themselves scheduled at 2 a.m. in every time zone. Small wonder, perhaps, since Dann was the boss at the time—the wittily cynical programmer who once, when asked by a CBS station manager what the network had in store for them that year, breezily replied: “Oh, the same old crap.” Those were the days when CBS ruled the primetime ratings year in and year out. Dann could get away with a remark like that because the same old thing was apparently what people liked—Nielsen said so.
Meanwhile, those who rocked the boat were pains. As the Tinker party left, a CBS programmer took Tinker’s top aide aside. “Arthur,” he murmured, affable as ever, feeling the elbow, only trying to help, “why don’t you get rid of those guys?” Those guys, who already had an Emmy apiece, learned about this byplay a year later; just as well, because after New York they were already on the point of calling the whole project off.
“Who needed that kind of numbskull mentality?” asks Bums today, surrounded by awards, subdued lighting, tanned and leathery furniture. Still, after a bit of thought—“we owed it to the Tinkers,” and besides it was a helluva job—he and Brooks compromised. No divorce for Mary, just the suggestion of an unhappy
Moore and Tinker: onTthe set, she’s the star; behind the scenes, another matter
affair in the immediate past. Moustaches would be sedulously excluded, but Rhoda Morgenstern from New York would stay. Their troubles were not yet over. Potential profits and losses on network TV are so great that the executive suites are filled with second-guessers and bet-hedgers. Geez, Idunno, a television newsroom?—and she’s 30 and unmarried? The word “loser” kept cropping up, the idea being that 30year-old winners in the American Dream would always be blissfully married. “And that was 1970,” says Bums, round and cheerful. “Seems incredible now. If anyone dared to say anything like that today they’d get their heads handed to them on platters.”
When the first show was finally aired, the programmers were full of nervous suggestions: tone Rhoda down, drop Cloris Leachman (“too abrasive”), and who chose Edward Asner?—he’s Broadway drama, not TV comedy. Four Emmies and six years as news editor Lou Grant behind him, Asner has a new series planned around him for next season. And outside Bums’s office is a framed sampler from a fan: “Dear Mary Tyler Moore, Thank you for all the happiness your show has brought me, Tammy.”
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible now to see CBS’S twitchy handling of the Mary Tyler Moore project as the first hairline crack in the corporate touch at Black Rock, so named for the network’s monolithic black-faced New York headquarters. This season the crack has become a fissure. Leaders in the TV ratings for 20 years, CBS has got off to a terrible start, often coming third in the ratings behind its competitors. For a giant of CBS’S stature and history to come third in anything—let alone behind ABC, with a fraction of CBS’S resources—is gall inside wormwood encased in an unripe lemon. Some put the blame squarely on William Paley, the smooth and autocratic chairman who for 48 years has been the biggest stockholder in the Columbia Broadcasting System. At 75, they said, 10 years older than the age at which he asked his executives to retire, Paley was getting long in the tooth, his touch was gone. Despite the fact that CBS’S third-quarter profits had been a record $40.8 million, its stock dipped six points in the face of plummeting ratings during the first month of the new season. In October, Paley moved: he fired his president, Arthur Taylor, who many thought would succeed him. Few industry tears were shed for Taylor, a prickly, arrogant man who is blamed in some quarters for contributing to the ratings crisis by pioneering the Family Viewing Hour (effectively 7-9 p.m., forcing some hit shows with “adult” situations and racy dialogue into later time slots where their ratings suffered).
“CBS has been in the driver’s seat for so long that they’re the last ones to know why it’s all crashing around their ears,” says an MTM Enterprises executive. “In recent years they’ve lost good men to the rival net-
works and their replacements haven’t been so good, haven’t had the right instincts. And the projects they’re turning down in the development area! They’re just not very professional or able any more. Watch: by the end of the season they’ll be where ABC always used to be—at the bottom. And if it weren’t for NBC’s own ineptness, things would be even worse.”
Not that MTM Enterprises knows all the answers either. Tinker says that his trick is to surround himself with talented people. He has not always guessed right, nor have they. In the beginning, of course, there was MTM Enterprises, which begat the MTM show (1970), The Bob Newhart Show (1971), Rhoda (1974) and Phyllis (1975). And God saw that they were good, and would eventually turn a profit. On the other hand, the empire has had more than its share of strikeouts: Friends And Lovers (starring Paul Sand, an eccentric genius, as a bass player with the Boston Symphony,
1974) ; Second Start (starring Bob Crane,
1975) ; Texas Wheelers (starring Jack Elam, a Waltons with southern bite, 1975); Doc (starring Barnard Hughes as a welfare doctor in New York, which limped through the 1975 season and despite radical surgery had its life-systems removed after the first few episodes this season); and most recently and resoundingly, the Lorenzo And Henrietta Music Show, an every-weekday interview show starring Lorenzo Music (co-creator of The Bob Newhart Show and Rhoda’s invisible Carlton-the-Doorman), which was summarily dropped by more than 200 syndicated stations earlier this season and lost a reported one million dollars in the process.
The Music debacle was richly deserved: any show may be allowed to put you to sleep once in a while but every night? Still, the experience was galling. “What amazed
me about the Music show,” says one observer, “was that it was not only dull but tacky. Tack isn’t what you associate with MTM.”
Not a bit. The sitcoms are lovingly produced and the general air on the MTM acreage is of a large happy family, lots of talent, no stress, no tantrums, no delinquencies. Perhaps it’s as well that its most prominent failures, Doc and Music, were produced elsewhere, but at Studio City, on the lot where Canada’s Mack Sennett made his frenzied madcap comedies, hangar after hangar bears the title of the comfortable MTM success it houses. If you had to make a movie of a well-run, well-adjusted TV success story, dappled with California sun, Mercedes, Guccis, and just the right amount of creativity without being pushy about it, you’d need to go no further. In this it’s the antithesis of Norman Lear’s TV empire, which runs at fever pitch. The result is that members of Lear’s staff tend to be as excitably brittle as overstrung pianos, particularly the writers. Says one writer who has worked for both Lear and MTM: “At MTM the writer is preeminent. With Norman you always get the feeling that no matter how good your work is, he could do better. Norman, being hectic and abrasive, doesn’t hesitate to tell you so—since he’s a helluva writer, he’s often correct. By comparison MTM is a rest home.”
Nor is there any pressure at MTM from the actors. “I’ve been places,” says Allan Bums, “where the writer’s an also-ran, where the actors dictate everything. Think of what could have happened here: Mary’s not only an actor, she’s the owner. But she has always deferred to the creative forces behind the scenes—and all the other shows have followed suit. The respect for the word here is extraordinary.”
The only detectable ripple in the general
feast of reason and flow of soul comes from the Newhart camp. Operating out of the sound stage next door to the splashy, New York-oriented, prize-heavy Rhoda, the Newhart operation exudes an air of moist charm, like its star. It’s a matter of considerable hurt irritation to them that despite consistently decent ratings, not once in five seasons has any aspect of the show—not a writer, not a director, not an episode, not a performer, not even good old Bob hirqself—been so much as nominated for an Emmy. “The trouble,” says a writer for another show, “is that the Newhart show is reactive. You can’t give Bob a series of one-liners, but he’s one of the great reactors. A lot of people don’t see how funny he is, except the public.”
Two years ago when Rhoda started, fueled with head-swelling publicity and expectations that it speedily fulfilled, Valerie Harper let it be known that she liked to work in privacy on a closed set. Up went the sign: RHODA-ABSOLUTELY NO
ADMITTANCE. CAST AND CREW ONLY. The door to the Newhart operation is two paces away. Bob, being one of the great reactors, lost no time in putting up his reply: WELCOME. OUR SET IS OPEN TO SUNSHINE, GUESTS, FRIENDS, AND GOD. Says an observer: “Bob thought what the hell, we might get a little overflow from disappointed Rhoda fans and every little bit helps.” Valerie Harper was not amused. Her sign is no longer there, but Newhart’s remains.
Apart from the impending retirement of the show that started it all, this has been a season of great change for MTM productions. Before being felled by ratings anemia, Doc—which had been big with over-forties—had had its homelife removed at the request of CBS, which was after a younger audience presumably out of touch with domestic scenes. The photostudio segments in Phyllis have been deleted and replaced by a new job for Phyllis in a city councillor’s office and Rhoda’s Joe has left her.
Change has come to The Bob Newhart Show as well, thanks to its producers, Gordon and Lynne Farr, a young husbandand-wife team from Toronto and Montreal respectively. A director in the midSixties for Toronto’s CFTO (at $175 a week), Gordon Farr moved to Hollywood in 1967, and after a sweaty period holed up in a grungy hotel behind Grauman’s Chinese Theatre Gordon was hired as a writer for Hollywood Palace. Lynne started writing songs, 30 of which were recorded by others, two by herself. She did the charts no damage with any of them. Deciding that songs were too much of a crapshoot, she turned to television. Soon she had written an episode for Mario Thomas in That Girl—and last year she and her husband joined Newhart as story editors. Now as producers they’re fleshing out Suzanne Pleshette’s role as Newhart’s wife, and moving the show out from the basic sets of Newhart’s office and living room. “We
have them fighting more than before, sometimes in bed,” says Lynne. “Believability,” says Gordon cheerfully, “that’s the secret.”
The most radical changes have been to Phyllis and Rhoda. Those responsible say that in both cases they were made to broaden the possibilities. “We weren’t getting enough mileage out of the photo studio,” says Stan Daniels, the Canadian writer and sometime actor who moved to Los Angeles in 1968 and (with Ed Weinberger) created Phyllis last year. “In the city office we can do much more with Cloris.” The remarkable Leachman, who treads the finest of comic lines between the viewer’s empathy and irritation, has created a character in whom we can see something of our opportunistic selfserving selves, and her show, with or without the photo studio, has perhaps the widest character range of any sitcom. I miss the benign idiocy of Richard Schaal’s photographer and will not readily forget his goofy pride in a photograph he’d taken of an immense hamburger (“see, I backlit the sesame seeds”); but there was always something wrong about Liz Torres, whose funny lines seemed to issue from the wrong side of her face. Now that Phyllis has a new
job, Torres too has left the series; one of the shorter footnotes of current TV history might question how long the photo-studio scenes would have lasted with Barbara Colby (replaced by Torres after Colby’s still-unsolved murder in a Los Angeles street last year), who had warmth and a highly individual humor.
Daniels and Weinberger had also begun to expand Mother Dexter’s role in Phyllis for the late Judith Lowry, for the excellent reason that audiences were crazy about her. In December, Mother Dexter was proposed to by her beau Burt Mustin—at 92 the oldest working actor on the continent—and when the show was filmed the effect she had on a packed studio audience was unreserved. So too when she was married (December 13) and launched into a typically salty Mother Dexter harangue, by phone, of a cab company because the taxi was late to take her to the wedding. “Well, what if I told you I was in labor? Okay, I’m in labor. When was my last contraction? In 1914, but it was a dilly. Now HURRY!” Alas, the marriage was not to last long: two weeks before the air-date of her wedding, Lowry, 86, collapsed and died on a New York sidewalk, and Mustin, after his brief Indian summer on television, is
now confined to a retirement home. The backlog of shows already taped will mean that Mother Dexter will be seen on Phyllis into January, after which the part will probably evaporate—since sitcom audiences are not supposed to be able to handle real death—without explanation.
On the other hand, TV audiences are crazy about weddings and births. Remember Lucille Ball, pregnant with Desi Arnaz Jr., finally producing him as an infant on 1 Love Lucyl Huge. Remember—gracious Lord, who can forget?—Miss Vicki marrying Tiny Tim on the Johnny Carson Showl Immense. And Rhoda marrying Joe in the one-hour special back in October, 1974? Best estimates are that that was watched by 33 million households, MTM Enterprises keeps oversized scrapbooks— bulging with clips, stories, reviews, social comment—from coverage of that one event alone. Otherwise rational-seeming people across the United States arranged Rhoda-and-Joe wedding parties on the night the show was aired. Everybody loved it.
Now MTM is in the process of dismantling the whole thing: Joe has left her, Rhoda’s back to her old kvetsching, and the most attractive person around is Julie Kavner as Rhoda’s sister Brenda. What is this, some kind of death wish? Since Allan Bums, with Jim Brooks, arranged the marriage and is now presiding over its dissolution, he’s the one to answer for it. “The problem with Rhoda,” he said, frowning slightly in the lush dusk of his curtained office, “is that we couldn’t do anything with the marriage any more. Jim and I had this conceit that we could do marriage in a different way, say things that hadn’t been said before. Well, we found we couldn’t, and the Family Viewing Hour slugged us too. We couldn’t be really provocative. We agonized over it for three, four months.
What were we to do—give her a baby? That’s so tired, it’s the sort of thing every series does when it wants to eke out another year. Joe’s business going under? That seemed to us to be de-balling for him.”
So what Burns and Brooks brought together, Brooks and Burns are putting asunder—though hedging their bets about ultimate divorce. “If the public reaction is big enough,” Burns said cautiously, “and by that I mean not the hate mail but the kind of reaction that turns the sets off. . .” His voice wandered as he contemplated the mail too. “Some of it is so irrational,” he continued, frown deepening, “people complaining that we’re libertines, undermining the fabric of society, promoting the idea that separation and possible divorce are terrific. Unfortunately, weddings are always more popular than divorces.” And despite his view that Valerie Harper is better as an underdog—“when she was married, she was less affecting”—Rhoda s ratings this season are not as high as they were last. No matter what CBS suggests as an explanation (the Presidential election, rival networks starting off the season with boffo spectaculars), it’s plain that Joe’s departure from the marriage bed has resulted in
a form of coitus interruptus for many of Rhoda's fans—no matter what splendid therapy it may be for the writers. Maybe the fat man in the CBS programming office all those years ago wasn’t wrong about everything.
Still, Rhoda is hardly in immediate danger of cancellation. Nor is the new Tony Randall Show, and nor, despite perplexingly poor early ratings, are Phyllis and Newhart. MTM’S CBS productions are likely to get special consideration after the recent long-term signing of Mary herself to an exclusive CBS contract. Mary has made a great deal of money for the network, and the urge is to see the Tinkers, titular owners of MTM Enterprises, as two of the biggest plutocrats of the business, despite their failures. In fact it’s only their prospects that are solid, for the company is deep into deficit financing. A fairly new phenomenon, deficit financing, according to a visiting British TV executive, “is the nicest way of saying you’re getting screwed I’ve ever heard.” It means that each show MTM produces has to be subsidized by the bank, since each show costs MTM more to make than the network pays for it.
“I’m still amazed,” says Grant Tinker, son of a Connecticut lumber-company
president, “at the sophisticated people in this business who ask me how it feels to be a millionaire, raking in all that money. The fact is that the Crocker Bank of California owns us.” In 1970 a half-hour filmed sitcom cost about $100,000 to make; since CBS paid a little more than that. The Mary Tyler Moore Show produced a profit for the first three years. But for the last four years, production costs have risen ruthlessly, so that now a half-hour costs between $160,000 and $185,000 to film, and the Crocker Bank puts up the current net loss to MTM Enterprises of $30,000 to $35,000 per show. Including the MTM show? Especially. If a show is a hit, the network can charge more money for commercials while paying the same, originally contracted sum to its producers; but the actors in a hit, sensing haytime, will suddenly despatch agents and lawyers to force new, upwardly mobile contracts out of their employers.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that the Tinkers live in a flat above the store, pack their lunches, and drive 1962 Plymouths. They live in Bel Air, which is as close to material heaven as California affords, eat out a lot, and drive Mercedes. If Mary has recently been reduced to a $30-a-week cash allowance (down from $40), she probably has at least 31 credit cards. But should a man be pigheaded enough—“stupid enough,” Tinker amends—to film (not videotape) his shows for the visual quality film provides, then he has to depend on syndication after the network run to make back his money. “To get into daily syndication,” says Tinker, “you have to have at least four years of product behind you to make it worthwhile for the stations to buy you. Five years is better, six better still.” The odds are lousy; if it were a game in Las Vegas, nobody would play it.
By contrast, Norman Lear does better
out of his network shows because he videotapes them: film is easier to edit, easier to light (and more flattering to its female stars), but at least 20% more expensive. Understandably, the networks’ refusal to pay more for the shows they make such colossal profits from has excited deep resentment among Hollywood producers, film and tape specialists alike. But the situation gets no better.
“There are so many of us,” says Tinker, “and only three of them [the networks]. ‘Maybe Tinker’s tired,’ they’ll say, ‘so let’s get some of Danny Arnold’s product, or Jimmy Komack’s, or any of the other producers.’ The networks are incredibly spoiled, so realistic as to be cruel . . . and they’ve all taken Jim Aubrey lessons.” (Aubrey is the former TV network president for CBS. Dubbed the Smiling Cobra, he spoke so softly that colleagues sometimes had to bend very close to catch what he was saying. What was finally heard might be something like: “You will never sell another show to this network as long as you live.”)
Tinker sighs and smiles his deprecating smile. Sure, he says, he’d like to return to a network job—as head of west-coast production for NBC in the early Sixties he met Mary during the pilot for The Dick Van Dyke Show, and married her in 1962— “because it’s really a simple business when you break it down. Hire the best, that’s the ball game. Talented people—I prefer to be around them than non-talented people. I also like to let them alone. Otherwise, I have no talent. Now Norman [Lear] is a talent, he’s a writer. A great moment for me,” he continues, “is when I go to see one of the shows and the writers actually accept one of my suggestions.” He smiles with the comfortable assurance of the man who, with the Crocker Bank, employs them all.
His wife has the same kind of assurance—more, without being brassily Lucille Ball about it, than the screen character she has made so precisely her own. Mary works in the sound stage dedicated to silent star Mabel Normand, who died in 1930 of tuberculosis aggravated by a heart broken, it was said, by Mack Sennett. “She brought laughter and beauty,” the plaque reads, “otherwise denied millions.” Inside, Mary talks to anyone happening by. “Hi,” she says to a visitor, rising from a table where she’d been reading a first draft, “I’m Mary Tyler Moore.” She was un-made up, just turned 40, and with a steely, good-humored directness that suggests she knows exactly where she’s going. She thought she knew in 1967: headed for Broadway with the musical version of Breakfast At Tiffany's. That proved to be one of the showbusiness Titanics of the decade and caused her, according to a friend, “ a most grievous wound.” It may have contributed to her diabetes, discovered soon afterward when she suffered a miscarriage. Today, she and Bobby Clarke of Philadelphia, out of Flin Flon, Man., are probably the continent’s best-known diabetics, though of the
pair Mary must be the only one who will casually take an insulin hit in mid-conversation—“Excuse me,” and jab the disposable needle into her thigh through the pantleg.
Today, she is probably more loved than any other TV performer, heavy with awards, secure in the respect of her colleagues (“the best light comedienne of her generation,” in Stan Daniels’ view), and in a few more months her show will be behind her. “I miss the sense of striving,” she says crisply. A tennis-playing friend describes her as driven and unable to relax (“she hasn’t mastered tennis yet, but she will, she will”).” “I’m a pessimist,” she says. “Back in 1970 for the first few shows 1 thought we’d never make it. But that’s what I’m after right now, a bit more uncertainty. I don’t know what I’ll do—apart from variety, which is where I come from. Maybe a film, though I must say I don’t get many offers.” The lopsided grin fades when she considers the stage. “No,” she says firmly, “not the stage. That would mean New York and I don’t want to leave Grant.”
In 1970, MTM Enterprises held its Christmas party in Allan Burns’s house. By 1974, it had to be held in a boardroom: more than 500 people came and Burns didn’t know two thirds of them. This season the only party of any note will be a small and very private one, on February 4, for the cast and crew of The Mary Tyler Moore Show after its last show has been filmed. Bums is not happy at the prospect. “It’s scary,” he says. A peak in his life is passing and he doubts if he’ll ever breathe the same air again. “The actors, the writers, the producers, not only talented, but good friends. Everyone asks me, ‘Come on, who hates who?’ It’s never been that way.” He’s still worrying about how to send Mary Richards on her way into limbo, when the last show is aired in the spring. One way it won’t be is marriage. That, they’re all agreed,would be abetrayalof sevenyears.v*