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April 23, 2014

Two Men and an Independent Woman

A compromise between Mary Tyler Moore Show creators Jim Brooks and Allan Burns and CBS led to 7 seasons of one of TV’s most beloved comedies.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

When Jim Brooks and Allan Burns conceived the character of Mary Richards, she was 30 and divorced — 2 qualities that made CBS execs very nervous.

But by the time she 1st tossed that beret, Mary was single, though still 30 — and definitely not a virgin. The compromise forged between the creators and the network led to 7 seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a much beloved series that nudged 1970s viewers into the era of women’s lib while evoking lots of laughs.

Mary Richards began her fictional life in a room full of men. And that life began with 1 dreaded word: divorce.

Jim Brooks and Allan Burns sat in a conference room at CBS’s New York headquarters, known as Black Rock. The black granite building at 52nd Street and 6th Avenue rose 38 stories from midtown Manhattan’s Television Row, and the producers were trapped in 1 of the upper floors, surrounded by black-paneled walls and network executives.

Something Straight Out of Kafka

CBS was the Establishment, where executives wore pinstriped suits and had gray hair. Both Brooks and Burns had been to other pitch meetings in their careers, but this felt different, more menacing. As Burns later remembered, “It was like something straight out of Kafka.”

Brooks and Burns had flown across the country from Los Angeles with Arthur Price, Mary Tyler Moore’s business manager and now the de facto vice president of her production company, to share their vision for the new series with programming executive Mike Dann and his colleagues. The destiny of the show rested with Brooks and Burns, in this room, as the faces of MTM Entertainment.

“You want to divorce Mary?” Michael Dann asked, incredulous.

As calendars flipped to the last page of 1969, Dann’s position as head of programming for CBS was far from solid. He wasn’t taking any chances with his schedule, and he and the New York suits hadn’t laughed at a thing Brooks and Burns had said in their comedy pitch so far.

The word "divorce" hung in the air. The network executives saw nothing funny about divorce. The divorce rate in the country was skyrocketing. It was a serious problem, not a sitcom premise. They would sooner fill the time period allotted for this show with that American-flag footage that signaled the network had signed off for the night than they would sanction a comedy about a divorced woman played by Mary Tyler Moore.

“Yes,” the producers said. “We want to divorce Mary.”

A silence.

Then, the onslaught of objections. “The audience will think she divorced Dick Van Dyke!” one executive said.

The producers ran through their prepared response: They would show her husband. He would be nothing like Dick Van Dyke. They promised. The script would make it clear that Mary was not at fault, that she was so likable even her ex’s parents couldn’t stay away from her after the divorce.

“Why not make her more like Doris Day or Lucille Ball?” another executive asked.

Doris Day, they explained, was somehow playing an ingénue even though she was 48. That might have flown in the ’60s, but it was hardly the way to make a statement at the beginning of a new decade.

Movements for women’s independence, free love — these weren’t even new anymore, and yet TV was still trying to sell shows about happy couples and “innocent” grown women and life down home on the farm. And Lucy, a national treasure, could do what she pleased and still draw an audience.

Brooks and Burns wanted reality with this show. Funny reality, but reality. And a lot of viewers would likely relate to a 30-year-old divorced woman, the producers argued.

“Why do you have to say her age?” another executive wondered. “Lucy never says her age.”

But, the producers replied, they wanted to say Mary’s age. If she was 30 and single and divorced, wouldn’t she be inherently more interesting than the ageless wives who had populated television since its inception?

“We have a man here from our research department,” Dann said, “and I’d like him to say a few things.”

Research Department Man chimed in. “Our research says American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a lead of a series any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.”

Brooks and Burns could form no logical response to this, except, perhaps, to note that Mary would be none of the other 3. The writers refused to back down. The executives implied that if they went ahead with their current plans, the show wouldn’t last past its 13-episode commitment.

This, and Brooks and Burns hadn’t even gotten past the divorce part of their pitch to discuss Mary’s proposed job as a gossip columnist’s assistant. The matter of her career and the rest of her life would have to wait until her complicated marital status was settled.

Dann, meanwhile, rolled his eyes at another pair of creative types gone haywire in a pitch meeting. “If you guys are determined to go with this,” he told the producers, “it’s Grant’s call.” [Moore’s husband, Grant Tinker, an NBC programmer through most of the 1960s, was now president of MTM Productions.]

As Brooks, Burns, and Price turned to leave, Dann asked Price to stay behind. “Arthur,” he said, “there are a few business things I’d like to discuss if the guys want to wait outside for you.” Once the door closed, he had 1 item of business: These guys, whoever they were, could very well end up killing Moore’s show, he warned.

Price told him he’d discuss the matter with Tinker, but he didn’t think a change of producers was likely. He didn’t, however, sugarcoat things when he met Brooks and Burns at the elevator. “Guys,” he said, “that did not go well.”

It's a Fresh Concept for Television

A few weeks before the New York meeting with the network, newly minted producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns had arrived at Mary Tyler Moore and Grant Tinker’s home in the tony Hollywood Hills. They came armed with a bold idea, and some trepidation.

They knew how important this show was to Moore, and thus to Tinker. And they knew their idea wasn’t quite what most people expected from Moore’s return to television. But they also thought it was a terrific idea, the next step beyond The Dick Van Dyke Show.

When Moore appeared atop the grand staircase to make her movie-star entrance, the producers had to choke down their nerves. When she got to the bottom of the stairs, however, she wobbled a little, pretending she was drunk, drugged, or otherwise unstable, here in the middle of the day. Then she laughed.

Burns and Brooks laughed in response, more at ease. She was genuinely funny.

They didn’t know if she would find their proposal for her show quite so amusing. Writers renowned for their Emmy wins, critical lauds, and realistic approach to issues on ABC’s Room 222, Brooks and Burns did not court the masses with middlebrow humor. They tackled modern problems.

The duo knew Tinker liked them, but they had no idea what to expect of their star. They also weren’t sure how much she wanted to risk on her comeback show. For their part, however, they wanted this series to be a step forward from Room 222, to be even better and bolder than their 1st risky enterprise together was. They could only hope Moore and Tinker gave them that chance.

Moore’s character, they now told their new bosses, should be divorced and starting a new life. Her name would be Mary Richards, a smart, nice girl from Roseburg, Minnesota — and she would be unapologetic about her age, about being single, and about her independence.

Popular culture was changing: Woodstock had rocked the music world earlier that year. The Beatles had given their last concert together. Brooks and Burns wanted to make a show that could finally pull television into modern times, they explained to the couple.

The idea went over better than they dared hope.

Moore herself had gotten divorced, 8 years earlier, from the man she’d married straight out of high school. She could relate to the character they were now proposing. Their idea also seemed like a fresh concept for television, she told them, with lots of story possibilities. That the character was a single woman, and 30, felt new for the lead of a sitcom.

Brooks and Burns’s pitch also called for Moore’s character to be an assistant to a prickly gossip columnist. Moore and Tinker went for the whole thing. “I hired you because you did stuff that seemed to be in the real world,” Tinker told the producers. “And that’s what I want this to be.”

What Grant Tinker wanted and what CBS executives wanted, however, were not necessarily the same.

It's Not This Terrible Stigma

Next, Brooks and Burns had to present their Moore-approved premise to CBS’s Los Angeles–based vice president, Perry Lafferty. If he liked it, they’d head to New York for what would be that ultimately disastrous final approval meeting.

Over a tense lunch at the network’s Television City headquarters, Lafferty was already anticipating the cold reception their idea would receive at CBS’s East Coast headquarters. This was, after all, the network of I Love Lucy.

“Divorced?” he asked. “No, you can’t do this. You cannot have Mary Tyler Moore divorced. People hate divorce and there’s no way that anybody is going to accept her that way.”

Lafferty was known for being slick and modern himself. But he’d risen through the ranks at CBS on a straightforward philosophy: Series concepts should be as simple as a paper clip, “a bit of wire adroitly twisted into useful form,” but capable of infinite variations, like a great piece of classical music. More practically speaking, scrapped series pilots cost the network up to $750,000 each year. Lafferty didn’t like missteps.

On the other hand, critics were grumbling about CBS’s successful, but wildly out-of-touch, lineup of silly, backwoods-set shows: Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction. Lafferty wanted to take a few creative chances with some new shows — but big gambles were better off made in summer programming, not in series featuring major stars, with major commitments and major fall launches.

Brooks and Burns tried to reason with Lafferty. “Look, everybody, including all the executives at CBS, has been divorced,” they told him. “It’s not this terrible stigma. It’s not like divorced people are lepers. Why are you so afraid of it?”

Lafferty started to warm to the idea, even though it still made him nervous. “Listen,” he said, “what you’re saying makes sense. But we have to pitch it to Mike Dann in New York.”

That, of course, didn’t turn out so well.

The Opposition Wouldn't Back Down

After the New York meeting, Price called Tinker to tell him what the CBS executives had said about Brooks and Burns. Tinker wasn’t interested. Firing Brooks and Burns was out of the question as far as he was concerned.

He knew he still had leverage — he had Moore, with whom the network wanted to be in business. Moore and Tinker were willing to reconsider the divorce angle if their producers were, but the producers themselves would stay.

Dann just wanted to protect Moore’s persona. He worried that Moore’s loyal fans would react badly to her being a divorcée, a status he thought implied a woman of lesser morals.

“I think you could classify me as a prude at that point,” he explains. “I was worried about keeping a perfect image of her.” He wanted to maintain leverage for the network as well:

“You’re negotiating with [producers] for a major commitment of a couple million dollars,” Dann says. “You never are too enthusiastic [about their show] when you’re dealing with them. As a consequence, the creative people think they know everything, but they don’t. While my career depends upon them, at the time they make the deal, they’re the opposition.”

And in this case, the opposition — Moore and Tinker — wouldn’t back down. “They knew exactly what they wanted to do and they were going to do it,” says Fred Silverman, who at the time worked under Dann as the network’s vice president of development. “After that, the network threw its hands up.”

They Came Up With a Compromise

Brooks and Burns got on a plane back to Los Angeles together after their New York meeting, exhausted and dejected. The 5-hour flight felt twice as long as they relived the horrible feeling of being in a room full of network executives who seemed to hate them. Soaring over the patchwork quilt of Midwestern states, they discussed quitting the Moore project.

But after they got home, they reconvened in their shared temporary office at CBS Studio Center and thought better of their decision. They decided that since they still had Moore and Tinker’s backing, they would brainstorm a new concept for the show to address some of the network’s concerns while still making a series that felt contemporary for 1970 and worthy of Moore’s big comeback.

After a week, they came up with a compromise of sorts: Mary would still be single. And, yes, still 30. But she wouldn’t be going through a divorce; she would simply be recovering from a big breakup.

And the Rest Is History

They also took the opportunity to rethink the idea of putting her at the mercy of a bitchy boss in a Los Angeles newspaper office. Mary would live in Minneapolis, they decided, to get away from overplayed Los Angeles and New York.

And she would work in a local TV newsroom, based on Brooks’s experiences at CBS News in New York. A newsroom would lend a sense of everyday reality to the series, as well as provide conflict — it would be a loser station constantly struggling with ratings.

To make sure Moore was surrounded by a strong ensemble cast, they created two separate worlds for Mary, her workplace and her home life.

To populate these worlds, the writers dreamed up the kind of strong characters they were known for: an overbearing, semi-alcoholic newsroom boss [Ed Asner as Lou Grant]; a kindly newswriter [Gavin MacLeod as Murray Slaughter]; a vacuous newscaster [Ted Knight as Ted Baxter]; a perfectionist neighbor [Cloris Leachman as Phyllis Lindstrom]; and a tough best friend [Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern].

The friend was to be particularly important. Mary would need help — she’d be starting over after a major breakup with a longtime boyfriend who refused to propose, even after she’d supported him through medical school. The script would imply that she had possibly lived with him. Given that she was 30 and had been “supporting” him, audiences could surmise the obvious. CBS, in turning down divorce, had settled for living in sin.

Brooks liked the idea of a character who was “an independent single woman, who had spent her life wanting to be a dependent married woman up until that point.” That premise struck him as rife with fresh comedic possibilities and dramatic conflicts alike.

Brooks and Burns’s original proposal for the show summed up her character: “Mary is open and nice. That’s why she’s in trouble. It’s also why she’s still single. If she had been less open, she could’ve maneuvered that doctor into marrying her….

“This series will, as we hope you have noted, be comedically populated. But it is clearly about one person living in and coping with the world of the 1970s... tough enough in itself... even tougher when you’re 30, single, and female... when, despite the fact that you’re the antithesis of the career woman, you find yourself the only female in an all-male newsroom.”

This described the fate of more than a few real women at the time, but it was a scenario that had never been depicted on television. When Moore read it, she told the producers she loved it enough to take the risks involved.

“This is what I wanted to do,” they recall her saying. “I would have loved to have been divorced. But this is great.”

Originally published Emmy® magazine issue no 9-2013.

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