Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classicby Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
"Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's deft weave of social history and sharp entertainment reporting explains how [The Mary Tyler Moore Show] made the world safe for Lena Dunham" (Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls)—the making of a classic and groundbreaking TV show, as experienced by its producers, writers, and cast.
When writer-producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns dreamed up an edgy show about a divorced woman with a career, the CBS executives they pitched replied: “American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a series’ lead any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.”
Forty years later, The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of the most beloved and recognizable television shows of all time. It was an inspiration to a generation of women who wanted to have it all in an era when everything seemed possible.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted tells the stories behind the making of this popular classic, introducing the groundbreaking female writers who lent real-life stories to their TV scripts; the men who created the indelible characters; the lone woman network executive who cast the legendary ensemble—and advocated for this provocative show—and the colorful cast of actors who made it all work. James L. Brooks, Grant Tinker, Allan Burns, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Gavin MacLeod, Ed Asner, Ted Knight, Georgia Engel—they all came together to make a show that changed women’s lives and television itself. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted is the tale of how they did it.
“Fast-paced and charming…Armstrong’s absorbing cultural history offers the first in-depth look at a series that changed television.”
"This is a wonderful book. It takes us backstage with a keen insight on the writing, directing and casting of one of the best television shows, ever. I didn't want it to end, any more than I wanted The Mary Tyler Moore Show to end."
"I tried to skim this book, but failed miserably, finding I couldn't put it down. In case you're wondering how we got from I Love Lucy to Girls, the answer is: "The Mary Tyler Moore Show, stupid!" Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's deft weave of social history and sharp entertainment reporting explains how this revolutionary show made the world safe for Lena Dunham."
Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted hurt my face. Jennifer Armstrong brought back memories and laughs from one of the best eras in television. She made me stay up all night and by the morning my face hurt from smiling. I forgive her because I enjoyed the book so much.
"Pop-culture gold: a can't-put-it-down history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the misfit genius women (and men) who made it. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted is essential reading if you love The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or TV comedy wizards, or things that are awesome."
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Read an Excerpt
Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted
There is a certain trajectory your life takes when you create a classic book or movie, song or television show. It’s a path followed by all those who accomplish this rare feat, and yet they never know they’re on it at the time. And thus they never know if the vision they’re fighting for is valid, much less great. They don’t know of the accolades, or the difficulties, that are to come. They don’t know how hard it will be to move on from such a rarefied experience, nor how hard it will be to duplicate it, but they will try, because, let’s face it, they won’t have much choice. Most of them will find out that comebacks are hard to come by. Then they will, if they are lucky, come to accept that even one classic in one’s life is quite enough, and they will sit back and enjoy all the glory that gives them before their time is through.
It is not, all in all, a bad life. But it’s not as easy as it looks, either.
Jim Brooks was on his way to such a fate, though he never would have guessed it, when he was spending his days writing copy for CBS News in New York—reports on the Bay of Pigs, Andy Warhol, Beatlemania, anything and everything that came through on the clanging wire service machines.
It was 1961, and some form of network news had been a standard part of American life for nearly forty years, since the days of radio. Now television had taken over the country, but it was only just hitting its stride. News was at the forefront of every development in television: The first national live television broadcast in the United States was President Harry Truman’s 1951 speech in San Francisco at the conference for the Treaty of Peace with Japan. A then–cutting-edge microwave relay system allowed viewers in local markets across the country to hear the president’s words at the same time, united, as a nation. Two months later, commercial television had its first live national broadcast with CBS’s See It Now, a newsmagazine series that opened with a split screen of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge—look! Both coasts! See it now! As the 1960s began and Brooks got hired at CBS, more developments in technology allowed the news to be almost up-to-the-minute when it aired. He had timed his stumble into the business well.
The job required a lot from a guy without a news background, without even a college diploma—Brooks had dropped out of New York University. Now twenty-one, he had lucked into the gig with help from a friend of his sister. The job was exhausting, but he found refuge in watching television when he got home. Not the news—no more news, please—but comedy, The Dick Van Dyke Show in particular. While I Love Lucy had perfected the sitcom, Dick Van Dyke made it more realistic, wringing its comedy not from far-fetched shenanigans but from everyday situations. Brooks liked that Dick Van Dyke was about a TV writer, Rob Petrie; even though Rob wrote for a variety show, Brooks could relate at least a little.
More importantly, this show had more believable characters than the sitcoms that came before it, even if they were funnier than ordinary people. When Rob’s wife, Laura, ruined a sexy weekend getaway by getting her toe stuck in a bathtub faucet, the incident made audiences laugh, but it also made (some) sense—more sense than Lucille Ball stomping grapes or working at a chocolate factory, in any case.
Female viewers could imagine being Laura, because the woman playing her, Mary Tyler Moore, was vulnerable and goofy along with being pretty; male viewers wanted to be Rob for the same reasons. Laura was never more adorable than when she called out, from behind a closed door, to explain her stuck toe: “I was playing with a drip.”
Moore could make a toe stuck in a faucet sexy and funny. She was a twenty-five-year-old actress with a brunette flip that women across the country were asking their hairstylists to re-create, a huge smile, gorgeous legs, and impeccable comic timing. The former dancer had grown up in Brooklyn Heights watching Milton Berle on television in the early ’50s and aspiring to perform like Mr. Television himself. Her grandfather, watching her prance around the house one afternoon in her youth, had cracked, “This child will either end up onstage or in jail.” She’d known even before then—from the age of about three, when she discovered her love of showing off—that it would be the former. By about the age of nine, just after World War II ended, she had moved with her family to Los Angeles at the urging of an uncle who was doing well there working as a music agent. Little Mary welcomed the move, figuring that it would bring her closer to being discovered by Hollywood.
She was, as it turned out, right. She’d gotten her first breaks on such television dramas as 77 Sunset Strip and briefly as Sam, the sultry secretary on Richard Diamond who was known to audiences only by her voice, lips, and legs. Moore was originally uncredited in the role but soon demanded a place in the credits and a raise when the character became a sensation. The producers turned her down, so she quit, then revealed her identity to the world in a small publicity coup. Soon after, she’d been chosen to play Laura Petrie as a “straight woman” to Van Dyke’s goofy charmer in his sitcom.
Nonetheless, Dick Van Dyke’s creator, Carl Reiner, had seen some inkling of humor in the actress and first tested it out in an early episode called “My Blonde-Haired Brunette,” in which Laura bleaches her hair to ridiculous effect in an effort to spice up their marriage. When she’s forced to explain the debacle to her husband, she tells him in a masterful monologue-cum-crying-jag about what she’s done. In that moment, Moore felt the first thrill of making the audience laugh instead of simply setting up Van Dyke’s lines. The cry would become her trademark comedy move, reminiscent of Ball, and the incident proved to Reiner that Moore was a real comedian. The producer began gearing episodes more toward the couple at home than he had originally planned when conceiving the show, and eventually even gave her a catchphrase: “Oh, Rob!”
Everyone who watched fell in love with her, including Brooks. He fantasized about being a TV writer who worked with such people—comic geniuses and pretty brunettes alike—but for the moment he’d have to settle for writing about the news of the day.
On the opposite coast, a comedy writer named Allan Burns had similar thoughts as he watched The Dick Van Dyke Show. Burns worked on cartoons like Rocky and Bullwinkle and had helped create the sitcom The Munsters, but he saw himself as a better writer than any of his projects showed so far. He wanted to understand how The Dick Van Dyke Show elevated itself above other comedies of its time, so he watched it closely. He wanted to be Carl Reiner.
The melding of Rob’s work and home life, Burns thought, added a new dimension to the traditional home-based sitcom, as did Reiner’s clever writing and Van Dyke’s exceptional comedic skill. But Moore definitely stood out as special.
As stay-at-home mom Laura, Moore became a hit by forging a “very egalitarian and very sexual” relationship with on-screen husband Rob, as Moore explained it in interviews. The two clearly loved each other and didn’t get their comedy from fighting the way Lucy and Desi or The Honeymooners did. Laura’s formfitting Capri pants—which set off a nationwide trend with their daring show of calf—boosted the show’s sex appeal even more. So did the genuine romantic tension between the two stars, who clearly had a crush on each other no matter that both were married off-screen. The network and its sponsors still went to extremes to scrub the show of sexual implications: Rob and Laura had to sleep in separate beds, the word pregnant was not allowed (the censors preferred the more decorous “with child” or “expecting,” lest one link the lady’s condition with sex), and even getting Laura into pants was a hard-fought battle. But the show broke boundaries by subtle implication. Burns admired that.
He wasn’t alone in his admiration. In fact, Moore got an unforgettable vote of confidence from none other than Lucille Ball. The cast knew that occasionally, the sitcom queen—whose company, Desilu, owned the lot where the show shot—would lurk about. One day, Moore ran into her role model as Ball descended from a perch on the catwalk above where the Dick Van Dyke cast had just been rehearsing. Ball walked by Moore, then backtracked a few seconds later, looked her in the eye, and said, “You’re very good,” before she left. Moore would think of that whenever she felt unsure of herself.
Burns would have been shocked to learn Moore ever doubted her talent. He couldn’t believe, quite frankly, that a woman that good-looking could be that funny. Surely she had a stellar career ahead of her.
Five years later, that career didn’t look so good anymore, even when it was dressed in Audrey Hepburn finery. Broadway producer David Merrick’s public statement said it all: He had shut down production of his new play, a musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s starring Mary Tyler Moore, “rather than subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciatingly boring evening.”
Things had clearly not gone as planned for the much-anticipated 1966 musical, nor for Moore’s post–Dick Van Dyke career. Earlier that year, The Dick Van Dyke Show had ended its five-year run when Reiner and Van Dyke started craving more variety in their work. They felt the show starting to get repetitive, and furthermore, wanted both Van Dyke and Moore to have a chance at bigger (that is, movie) stardom. Moore felt insecure about leaving her cozy nook at Dick Van Dyke, where her costars, the writers, and the crew all cared about her.
But life was pushing her in a clear new direction: Her husband, TV executive Grant Tinker, got a new job with NBC’s programming department that forced him and Moore to move to New York City. Tinker hated being back east, but Moore looked forward to testing out her new stardom, even though she still thought of herself, she said, as “a nervous chorus girl from Studio City, California.”
Moore planned to take advantage of their new home by giving the Broadway stage a try. She had originally studied ballet, and her first professional showbiz job had been, just a few months out of high school, as the dancing elf “Happy Hotpoint” in stove commercials featured during The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Now that she’d moved to New York, she wanted to return to dancing and her dream of starring in a musical, seeing her name on a Broadway marquee. When she got an offer to play Holly Golightly in the stage adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it seemed like her chance to pursue her musical dreams.
It could have been the perfect vehicle for a svelte brunette who could sing and dance and had an Audrey Hepburn–like combination of sweetness and sex appeal. Newsweek at the time described Moore, in a ’60s version of a compliment, as “the fantasy girl of the American dream . . . bright but not aggressive, wholesome but not puritanical, funny but not slapstick.” In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, she could put those qualities to use and be part of a team that seemed like it couldn’t miss. The handsome Richard Chamberlain, known as TV’s Dr. Kildare, was cast opposite Moore on the stage. David Merrick, a mustachioed maverick producer, had a flair for dramatic publicity as well as onstage artistry. In 1961, he’d won a special Tony Award just for his exemplary production record.
But Merrick’s career had taken a dip the last year or so. The entertainment world was changing, and, like many of his contemporaries in the business, he hadn’t figured out how to catch up. Graphic violence and existential ennui were raking it in at the box office with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. The Beatles had gone from teen-pop idols who took The Ed Sullivan Show by storm to music revolutionaries with the release of their innovative Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the theater world, Cabaret—the tawdry story of a lady lounge performer of ill repute in Nazi Germany—was all the rage. Merrick tried to stay with the times, but found that depressing drama didn’t always translate into admirable edginess: The same year he planned to launch Breakfast at Tiffany’s, his production of The Loves of Cass McGuire, Brian Friel’s play about an Irishwoman who becomes an alcoholic in America, closed in sixteen days. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, about a teenager who kills her parents, lasted only a week.
The problems on Breakfast at Tiffany’s proved far worse, far higher-profile, and they started almost as soon as rehearsals began at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, on Fifty-first Street. The idea for the production had its inauspicious beginning in an airplane-ride argument between Merrick and songwriter Bob Merrill, known for his work on Funny Girl, about whether it was a good idea to do a musical version of Casablanca. Merrick said yes, Merrill said no. To punctuate his point, Merrill gestured to a guy across the aisle reading Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and said even that would make a better musical than Casablanca. Next thing Merrill knew, Merrick was convincing him to write songs about Holly Golightly.
Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and director Joshua Logan soon joined the team. But they quickly began to argue over how to approach the difficult material. It was a sign of things to come: The crux of Breakfast at Tiffany’s was its tug-of-war between dark and light, and that had played out to brilliant effect in the 1961 movie version. Audrey Hepburn had solidified her star status by bringing a sweetness and vulnerability to a character who’s a kept woman at best, a high-class hooker at worst. Johnson and Logan soon quit the project. To take over the writing and directing duties, Merrick brought in Abe Burrows, who’d written and directed Cactus Flower, a farce that was still playing on Broadway after opening two years earlier, and who’d won Tonys for writing and directing the 1962 production How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Burrows had become so well-known for his script-doctoring skill that “Get me Abe Burrows!” was a standard cry among bereft producers. Burrows, upon taking the Breakfast at Tiffany’s job, decided to favor the novella’s darker tones rather than the movie version’s sparkle.
After harsh reviews in Boston and harsher reviews in Philadelphia for the show’s on-the-road previews, Moore grew terrified to return to New York, dreading the looks of pity she’d get at theater district hangout Sardi’s. She felt desperate to clear her name. She took on the look of someone who was about to jump out of a skyscraper window at every rehearsal and performance. The lack of TV’s retakes, camera work, or directors and writers she knew and trusted made things even worse. The men in charge of the production—Merrill and Merrick—admired her intense work ethic, but they weren’t Carl Reiner and John Rich from Dick Van Dyke. She missed being surrounded by people who knew how to guide her to her best work.
Merrick trashed the original script by Burrows. He needed a script doctor for the celebrated script doctor, and he was looking for Moore’s old boss, Reiner. But Reiner was vacationing in Europe with his wife after five years of round-the-clock sitcom work, so there was nothing Merrick or Moore could do to lure him back to the States to fix Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Instead, Merrick brought in the renowned—and quite serious—Edward Albee to take on the ill-fated rewrite. “Why drown in two feet of water?” Merrick said, explaining his choice of the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? playwright. “We might as well swim out and take our chances.”
But Albee began disparaging the current script in public: “All those awful jokes will be thrown out,” he told the Boston Globe, “and I hope to substitute some genuine wit.” An angry Burrows left as the production’s director, replaced by 110 in the Shade director Joseph Anthony. Actors often received new script pages mere hours before curtain time during the preview shows, which caused major problems even though much of the material, Moore thought, was “masterful,” ahead of its time. Still, it was excessive. Sometimes the show ran four hours.
Moore, despite her best efforts, was at least part of the problem. In Boston, she had “a vocal range of about six notes,” as she later recalled, and a temperature of 103 as she battled the flu. Audiences in Philadelphia booed her, shocking the cast and crew. Who on earth boos the sweetest sitcom wife on television? Answer: people who want to see the darling star they fell in love with playing someone darling, not playing this dark lady of the night. If Moore had been given the role Audrey Hepburn had playing Holly Golightly, she may have been able to nail it. But she’d been given the part of a complicated, opportunistic hooker with more emphasis on how she made her living (collecting “fifty dollars for the powder room” from her dates)—and sometimes broke out into song. And other times swore. It was a dramatic challenge for which Moore was not prepared. Cast members started calling the show Who’s Afraid of Holly Golightly?
The implied answer was Mary Tyler Moore. “She was a dream to work with, inexhaustible,” Merrill said. “She was a good egg, but you always had a sense you knew you weren’t getting all out of her.” Every time Moore left the stage, she felt so terrible that she’d throw her arms around the stage manager, Burrows’s son Jim, for comfort. Once, she collapsed to the floor, sobbing, “What have I done wrong?” She thought she was always about to be fired from the project. Merrick showed no ill will toward the actress, however. Despite rumors that Tammy Grimes or Diahann Carroll might take her place, Merrick never recast the role.
Instead, Merrick put Moore and the rest of the cast out of their misery. On December 15, 1966, he canceled the show before it officially opened in New York, despite having to refund $1 million in advance ticket sales. He referred to the incident in the press as “my Bay of Pigs.” Moore later admitted to Time magazine, “I told everybody that doing Breakfast at Tiffany’s had strengthened and enriched me and that I had developed valuable scar tissue to make me tougher. Except that none of that was true.”
Holly Golightly, the character who had redefined single womanhood in America and made an icon of Audrey Hepburn, would not be doing the same for Mary Tyler Moore. Since The Dick Van Dyke Show, Moore had acted only in a handful of disposable movies for Universal that she’d been contractually obliged to make. The least offensive of the roles was as the naïve Dorothy, a supporting character in the film version of Thoroughly Modern Millie, starring Julie Andrews as the aggressive flapper. The most infamous was as a nun in Change of Habit, in which Moore, as Sister Michelle, falls in love with a doctor played by Elvis Presley.
Moore knew how far she’d fallen when she attended a movie premiere and was shoved out of the way by a pack of photographers. “Step aside, lady,” one of them said to her, “here comes Marlo Thomas.” Thomas was becoming a trendsetter as the star of a new sitcom, That Girl, about a single girl trying to make it in the big city. Moore was becoming a no-name, a has-been.
Soon after that, Moore suffered a miscarriage. She had a ten-year-old son from her first marriage, Richie, who shuttled between living with her and with his father, Dick Meeker, whom Moore had married straight out of high school. She had continued smoking and drinking after she found out she was pregnant with her and Tinker’s first child—still a common practice at the time—and later wondered if her bad habits contributed to her miscarriage. At the hospital after losing the fetus, her body dealt her another blow: Her doctors discovered she was diabetic. Frustrated, she “caved in to an assault of self-pity,” as she would later call it, after her diagnosis: She bought a dozen doughnuts, then drove around Beverly Hills eating all of them.
When the Van Dyke producers contacted Moore soon after that, with the offer to reunite her with her former TV husband in a variety special called Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman, she grabbed the chance. At best, it would help fans—and, perhaps more importantly, show business—to forget about the Breakfast at Tiffany’s debacle. At worst, it would end up a night of fun with old friends.
It got Moore far more than fun, though. The special didn’t just feature Moore, it presented her as at least an equal to Van Dyke. In fact, it often played like a celebration of her, a reminder through song, dance, and comedy of all the assets that had been buried under the rubble of the last few years of her career. The opening number, “On the Other Hand,” had Van Dyke singing about Moore’s wonderfulness while dancing with dozens of different cardboard cutouts of her looking sexy in a bikini, seductive in a glittery gown, cute in a summer frock. Their first performance together, “Life Is Like a Sitcom,” poked a bit of good-natured fun at their previous life as a TV couple. It was a special that challenged every TV reviewer not to use the word charming. Moore looked fresh, funny, talented, and totally in her element.
As soon as CBS executives saw the ratings for Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman, and heard fans’ enthusiastic response to seeing Moore on television again, they offered her the exact chance at career redemption she needed. How would she like to have her own sitcom, to be the headliner instead of the “other woman”?
Moore saw her way out of the career slump and personal disappointment she’d been stuck in for the last few years; she didn’t hesitate to sign the deal. She’d missed TV comedy since leaving Dick Van Dyke. But she also knew she needed this new sitcom of hers to be special.
Under the circumstances, with her career comeback so fresh and still delicate, CBS likely assumed she’d hire Carl Reiner to make her another show in which she played an adorable housewife. That way, everyone—the network and viewers—would get what they expected. If there was a lesson to be learned from the Breakfast at Tiffany’s debacle, it was that audiences did not enjoy the element of surprise when it came to Mary Tyler Moore.
But that was not what Moore would do. Instead, she allowed Tinker, with his eye for both the business and content of television, to take care of the details. Her strategy was to surround herself with talented people she trusted and let them do their thing—exactly what she’d wished she could have done on Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She chose well: Her husband was not only running a major television studio at the time, but he was the kind of guy so perfect you wanted to hate him, except that you couldn’t because he was so darn nice. He was known for hitting the home run at company softball games, for winning every tennis match, and for charming his associates with generosity, kindness, and class. He was good at everything he tried. If anyone had a chance at knocking her new sitcom out of the park, it was Tinker.
The couple had just returned to the welcoming warmth of Los Angeles to escape from the tribulations of the previous few years and for Tinker to start a new job as the head of Twentieth Century Fox Television. It was the perfect time for both Moore and Tinker to start life anew. What better way than working on her comeback project together?
Jim Brooks was hanging out at a laid-back New Year’s Eve party in Los Angeles given by a guy named Bud Wiser—yes, the man, a fellow documentary writer, shared his name with a brand of beer. A Clark Kent type in a tuxedo showed up among the jeans-and-T-shirt crowd as champagne-popping time drew near. Allan Burns had arrived at the party with his wife, Joan, armed with a joke about their stuffy wardrobe, and the stuffier party he’d attended beforehand. “Now can I start having fun?” Burns said, chafing in his tux jacket. He and Joan had been at her friends’ formal shindig ahead of this one. Brooks couldn’t get over someone walking into that Bud Wiser party in black-tie gear.
Brooks and Burns, who’d known of each other through mutual friends, soon started chatting, and Brooks admitted to Burns that he didn’t much like the documentary work he had been doing since moving to Los Angeles. What he wanted to do was comedy, great comedy. Brooks had quit his job in New York as a copywriter in the CBS newsroom a few months earlier, thinking he’d find a larger sense of purpose writing documentaries in Los Angeles for producer David Wolper. Brooks surprised himself by making the move; he hadn’t thought of himself as someone with enough ambition to do such a thing.
His instinct to move toward the source of media power was a good one. The television business was truly taking over the country now. In the depths of North Dakota, three steel beams connected by a metal grid and painted in alternating red and white bands stretched above the surrounding farmland for 2,063 feet in what was now the tallest man-made structure in the world, the KTHI-TV mast, built for one reason: to broadcast network programming to the widest possible swath of households. To be in on the business that provided that programming, these days, one had to be in Los Angeles.
But since coming to Hollywood, Brooks, a quietly funny guy who enjoyed the work of comedians Mike Nichols and Elaine May, found himself more and more interested in the world of television comedy, rather than documentary. He didn’t dare think he could get a job writing that sort of thing, but it intrigued him. “I want to get into TV,” Brooks told Burns. “Sitcoms.”
Burns’s tux looked to Brooks like a sign of his success in the television business. He knew Burns’s résumé, which spanned the impressive breadth from cartoon George of the Jungle to sophisticated sitcom He & She, which focused, Dick Van Dyke–like, on a cartoonist and his wife (played by real-life couple Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss). The show had gone off the air after just one season but had gotten loads of industry attention and won Burns an Emmy. By Brooks’s count, Burns had about a million shows on the air at the time. Brooks wanted to be the next Carl Reiner, and this guy was in the right line of work to get him there.
Burns didn’t impress himself quite so much. Though he worked steadily, the work didn’t make him very proud. He was known for, among other things, co-creating the sitcom My Mother the Car, which was as ridiculous as its title: It starred Dick Van Dyke’s brother, Jerry, as a guy whose deceased mother speaks to him through the radio of his antique car. At the same time that hippies were taking LSD and advocating for socialism and protesting war and making free love and wondering what it all meant, network television was trying to sell America a show about a guy whose car radio talks to him. The series became an instant, and lasting, punch line about everything dumb and crass and uncool and out-of-touch about TV. In any case, Burns’s television work wasn’t his focus. He was working on a screenplay on the side. He really wanted to be a respected film writer. Five years of television had worn him out, and it was time to follow his dream.
That night, as Brooks and Burns rang in 1966, Burns agreed to help secure his new friend a gig writing for My Mother the Car. It would be a good and obviously low-pressure place for him to start. The job marked Brooks’s first break into Hollywood writing, and he was grateful for the opportunity, even if My Mother the Car was no Dick Van Dyke. “Pillar of the Community,” Brooks told him. “That’s my new nickname for you.”
Thanks to the break Burns gave him, Brooks went on to write episodes of That Girl, The Andy Griffith Show, and My Three Sons before he was hired as a staffer on the short-lived comedy My Friend Tony. Jim Brooks was finally on his way to the career he wanted. Or at least he hoped so.
Three summers later, Jim Brooks—now officially James L. Brooks, television writer—called Allan Burns, eager to impress his old pal. He’d just helped develop a pilot—a test episode, which determines whether the network will buy the show and air it—for a new series called Room 222. The groundbreaking program would follow an African-American high school teacher played by the suave Lloyd Haynes, among the few black lead characters in TV history. ABC, the show’s network, was in third place of three networks, and its programming department was run by the audacious Barry Diller, so it was scrappier than its competition and willing to take chances. The show had gotten picked up and was going into production. “I want you to come see it,” Brooks told Burns. “I’m really proud of it.”
“You want me to write for it, don’t you?” Burns said, already worried he’d get sucked in. “And I’m not going to because I want to devote time to writing screenplays.”
“No, no, no!” Brooks protested. “Not at all. I just want you to see it—I’m screening it for a bunch of people. Would you come over and look at it?”
Burns agreed to go to the Fox screening room, to show his support for Brooks’s enthusiasm. He watched the show—an hour-long drama that focused on an American history class at the fictional Walt Whitman High School in Los Angeles—with Brooks and executive producer Gene Reynolds, along with four other producers and writers. This is about the best thing I’ve ever seen, Burns thought as he watched. It addressed the race issues at its core, but subtly. The cast, from Haynes to Michael Constantine, who played the principal, to Karen Valentine, who played a teacher, to the kids in the class, was impeccable. Burns could tell Brooks had done his homework before writing the script. Brooks had spent time at Los Angeles High School, and had gotten this portrait of a modern school just right. ABC had wanted to put a laugh track behind the show, but Brooks and Reynolds had refused; Burns thought that was admirable. He couldn’t wait to tell his friend how terrific he thought the show was. When it ended, he didn’t hesitate. “Okay, Jim, where do I sign up?” he said. “Because I’m not going to get the chance to write on anything anywhere near this good for a while.”
Burns became one of the show’s first freelance writers, still keeping his options open to write screenplays. The series gave him an office, even though he insisted he wasn’t technically on staff. He wrote half a dozen scripts.
Then, when Reynolds left Room 222 to work on some other pilots, Burns gave in and became a producer, always happy to help out. He and Brooks now produced and wrote, side by side, for the first time. They grew closer; they liked each other and everyone they now worked with, a great feeling. All of the writers and producers partied with each other. They had their dream jobs. Everything seemed to be working according to plan.
Brooks, however, couldn’t quite settle for just a dream job. Looking to expand on his newfound success, he worked on some other pilot projects. Burns stepped up to run Room 222 full-time while Brooks pursued those other ideas. By fall of 1969, Burns was once again saddled with a television show he hadn’t meant to run. He’d been trying to avoid exactly this—a committed, full-time involvement that took him away from his movie writing projects—but it was worth it to work on a great show and help his buddy Jim Brooks achieve the visions of TV greatness that had once seemed so far out of his reach.
The two made an unlikely pair. Brooks, a thirty-year-old hippie artsy type, had a beard and beads that belied his past life in a New York newsroom. Burns, a clean-cut thirty-five-year-old, sported side-parted hair and Buddy Holly glasses. But they had the kind of working chemistry that won Emmys and soon attracted the attention of Grant Tinker, now the vice president of Twentieth Century Fox Television, the studio that produced Room 222 for ABC. He was also the husband of Mary Tyler Moore, that comedic vision both Brooks and Burns had admired from afar a decade earlier.
That fall, Burns found himself sitting across a restaurant table from Grant Tinker, a quietly handsome man who looked exactly like you imagine a great TV executive would look—graying hair, a few perfectly placed wrinkles, dimples, aquiline nose. The lunch, per Tinker, was to be a secret. Burns wasn’t sure why, but he went along with it, since Tinker was something like his boss’s boss’s boss.
Tinker asked Burns whether he’d ever thought about doing another sitcom. Burns responded by complaining about the tough six-day-a-week, sixteen-hour-a-day schedule. “Grant, I’ve done it,” he told the executive, thinking of his wife and young children. “It’s hard work. I don’t want to do another one.”
“Well, think about it,” Tinker said. “If you’re running it, you can dictate your own schedule.” Burns foolishly bought that argument and went back to his own office, near his home in Brentwood, agreeing to give it some thought.
Then he got a phone call from Brooks. “Have you been talking to Grant at all?” he remembers Brooks asking. “About doing another pilot?” The secret lunches had made Burns nervous. And now he was worried his buddy had gotten wind that he was engaged in discussions about another job behind his back.
Burns took his chances that the curious tone in Brooks’s voice meant this was no accusation of treason. “As a matter of fact, I have,” Burns replied, still playing it cool.
“Well, me, too. He’s been talking to both of us. What do you think he’s getting at?” Brooks asked, then answered his own question: “I think Mary’s going to do a TV series and he’s feeling us out. He loves us. He loves Room 222. That would be his style.”
“You’re right,” Burns said, relieved they were on the same side. “Let’s call him.”
Brooks put Burns on hold while he patched Tinker in for a three-way conference call. Then they confronted the executive: “Mary’s doing another show, right?”
Tinker confessed: He’d tried to handle the proceedings in what he called a “dark of night kind of way. I shouldn’t even be talking to you about this on my Twentieth Century Fox phone.” But he’d have to tell his prospective writer-producers eventually, so it might as well be sooner than later. “We’ve made a deal. But not at Fox. Let’s get together and talk about it.”
As it turned out, Moore had signed on for thirteen episodes with CBS; the network had jumped at the chance to work with her, without even the faintest hint of a premise. Tinker wanted creative minds with a fresh vision of what Moore could do, and he hoped Brooks and Burns would team up for the job. He wanted the kind of writers he could trust while he got out of the way. If one terrific writer was a good thing, he thought, two would make things even better.
Tinker, whom Brooks describes as a “heroic figure” for using his business acumen for artistic good, had made one crucial decision when his wife had signed with CBS: Moore and Tinker would form their own production company, called MTM Enterprises, to maintain some control of the show to which she’d hitch her fortunes. Of course, this meant funding their own production, making the series an awfully large gamble for its star. Her money, her reputation, and her future now depended on its success. Failing to make good would provide one more dramatic wallop to the star’s fragile state. But succeeding would make Moore not only a star, but a pioneer. At the time, female producers were rare. Putting Moore’s name on the new venture could still go either way—yes, she had some star power, but many men in the business still resisted the idea of women with real, executive power.
Moore had given Tinker a few stipulations about what she wanted in her new show, Tinker now told his producers. She wanted to play someone close to herself, because she didn’t trust her acting skills to go much further. For the same reason, she also wanted to make it an ensemble show; even if it was named for her, as was typical for sitcoms of the time, she wanted to surround herself with great supporting actors. Allowing focus to routinely pull back from its marquee star would become the show’s first major innovation, and its hallmark.
Brooks and Burns agreed to the job. Burns would have to postpone his movie-writing dreams yet again. He hoped this show was worth giving that up—and that it lived up to the faith Tinker had placed in them.
This kind of project could catapult Brooks’s and Burns’s careers to the next level of greatness, even the Dick Van Dyke level of Emmy-winning prestige, or it could flop quite prominently. But the pressure didn’t end there. As they brainstormed ideas, they also found themselves heading a production company, since Tinker didn’t want his name on it until the show was ready to go and he could leave his job at Fox.
Tinker secured offices for Brooks and Burns, then turned them loose to do the rest of the work. They put in long hours, getting to their new office in the early morning Southern California sun and heading home well after dark. They hired the new production company’s accountant, as well as other employees. Most writers, even executive producers, did not take on this level of responsibility at a production company. But Brooks and Burns hardly knew any better. The arrangement, luckily, worked well, with Burns’s experience and pragmatism balancing Brooks’s visions of greatness.
Among their first hires was their secretary, Pat Nardo, who’d recently relocated from New York. Back east, the twenty-nine-year-old had been working for Talent Associates, a production company known for its work on Broadway as well as its gritty TV drama, East Side/West Side, starring George C. Scott. When Nardo left high school ten years earlier, she’d been the only girl in her class who wasn’t engaged. Her friends had been in awe of her: “I don’t have your courage,” they said. “I want to know what I’m doing every Saturday night for the rest of my life.” When she started working at Talent Associates, she considered it the most exciting place to work in the world. There she got to be far more than a secretary, and she learned what went into high-quality producing. The company hired a fair number of women (which is to say, more than one), though Nardo suspected that was because women made less money and seemed less threatening to David Susskind, the prolific producer and talk show host who ran the place.
In any case, the job allowed her a surprising amount of responsibility and adventure. Susskind would send her on last-minute trips with F. Lee Bailey—a lawyer famous at the time for defending Dr. Sam Sheppard, who was convicted, then later acquitted in a retrial, of killing his pregnant wife (and whose story became the basis for The Fugitive). Bailey was now hosting a talk show, Good Company, meant to emulate Edward R. Murrow’s successful ’50s interview show, Person to Person. Nardo got her first passport as a one-day rush job so she could jet to London for shoots with J. Paul Getty and Sean Connery. On another trip, she flew, with a scotch-sipping Bailey at the controls, in a private plane to Chicago for a tour of the Playboy Mansion.
But recently she’d met someone. Chuck Barris ran ABC’s daytime programming department, creating hot new game shows such as The Newlywed Game for the network, and she’d fallen for him. He asked her to move out to Los Angeles to be closer to him, and she found a job on a film that was about to start shooting. When that fell through, one of Barris’s colleagues suggested she interview with these two comedy writers he knew who were developing a show. He’d heard they needed a secretary.
At first, she wasn’t impressed with the idea of working for Brooks and Burns. Before working for Susskind, she’d been secretary to the charismatic producer Bob Rafelson, who created The Monkees TV show in 1966. Nardo hadn’t watched The Dick Van Dyke Show, so she had only the vaguest idea of who this Mary Tyler Moore was, and she had no idea who Brooks and Burns were.
When she met with them, she couldn’t even believe these two guys could work together—they were the definition of “odd couple.” Brooks’s desk was a mess of papers and stray pieces of clothing; Burns’s was impeccable. Brooks slumped over and spaced out during the interview; Burns directed the questioning. When Burns asked what brought her to California, she didn’t want to say she’d come for a man, so she ranted in her Bronx accent about how sick of New York she’d gotten. Brooks, finally roused, looked right at her and said, “She’s Rhoda.”
She had no idea what he meant—that she was the embodiment of the outspoken, Jewish girl from New York they’d been envisioning as the character of Mary’s best friend. But her Rhoda-ness sold Brooks on Nardo. Burns, on the other hand, liked her Gucci shoes. She got the job, whether she wanted it or not. She didn’t—she was sure she would be miserable at it. She was above this. But she took it to make money and stay close to Barris.
It helped, however, when Brooks and Burns offered to get the New York Times delivered to the office every day for her. She’d read the paper every day of her life since her teenage years, but she couldn’t afford it now. She’d considered it her college. If Pat Nardo was going to be a secretary, she needed at least a little bit of intellectual stimulation. The New York Times was a good start. She had no idea at the time that she’d be among the show’s several influential women behind-the-scenes—and one of its many secretaries-turned-TV-writers who would help make Mary Richards into a feminist icon.
Just when Nardo was starting to warm to her new job, she managed to offend her new bosses. Brooks and Burns were going to a meeting across town, and they felt bad that their secretary would be alone in the office all day, so they invited her to join them. She climbed into the backseat. As they drove, they were discussing how awful most of television was. “Talk about a bad show,” Nardo cracked, “how about that My Mother the Car?” Brooks and Burns froze, suddenly silent. She knew what she’d done just by the way they acted. “And you wrote it,” she concluded.
In case there had been any lingering doubt, this served as a reminder to Brooks and Burns: If their secretary didn’t know who they were, if her only knowledge of their body of work was their laughable mother-as-motor-vehicle scripts, they still had a long way to go to conquer Hollywood.
Meet the Author
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She writes about pop culture for several publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Fast Company, New York‘s Vulture, BBC Culture, Entertainment Weekly, and others. She grew up in Homer Glen, Illinois, and now lives in New York City. Visit her online at JenniferKArmstrong.com.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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If you're a fan of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW or even just interested in how a TV show is created, nurtured and maintained, they you will love this book. Far from an instant classic sitcom, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW surmounted numerable hurdles (apathetic TV executives, dismissive early reviews, a shaky pilot shooting that had to be redone, lackluster initial ratings) before it became the classic we appreciate today. This is filled with the kind of fascinating behind-the-scenes stories that you usually find in books by Peter Biskind (EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS and DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES among others). Jennifer Keishin Armstrong starts with the show's two head producers James L. Books and Alan Burns and their determination to create a comedy that was smart and hip and about a 30 year old woman who was (gasp!) not married and never had been. Early on they decide that a show about a woman needs female writers and so they began seeking and nurturing female writers to the show. Over the course of the book, we follow the lives of the producers, the writers and the cast as they work to create magic. This is a wonderful book; a fast read and obviously an affectionate tribute to the TV show.
I enjoyed this book. It has excellent details regarding the cast, crew, and the whole process of the show itself.