The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of the most influential and groundbreaking sitcoms in the history of television. The series follows Mary Richards, played by Mary Tyler Moore, as a 30-something working as an associate producer on a local news series and navigating single life in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Its portrayal of an umarried working woman finding satisfaction outside of home and family — and openly enjoying sex and dating — was unheard of in the early 1970s, but it’s not just the show’s forward-thinking writing that made it a classic. Its heartfelt relationships, witty writing, and relatable conflicts made the sitcom a hit with audiences and critics alike and cemented Moore (already an established TV star when the show debuted) as an enduring cultural icon. It went on to win 29 Emmy awards during its seven-season run on CBS. Here are eight things you might not know about the sitcom.
Lou Grant Was Ed Asner’s First Comedic Role — And He Almost Blew It
The late Ed Asner is remembered now as a strong, versatile actor, but at the time, some CBS executives questioned whether he’d be up for a prominent role in a comedy series, according to Jennifer Keisin Armstrong’s 2013 book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. Although he was casting director Ethel Winant’s first choice, the producers had kicked around some other choices before signing on, like The Odd Couple’s Jack Klugman, fellow cast member Gavin McLeod, and Second City alum Shelley Berman, who later had a small role as one of Mary’s dates.
Winant pointed to Asner’s role as a journalist in the political drama Slattery’s People as evidence that he had the right vibe. With everybody on board, they brought Asner in for an audition — and he completely biffed it, hitting the famous line, “You’ve got spunk… I hate spunk,” with a dramatic fervor that turned everybody off, according to Armstrong.
The decision had already been made not to cast him when Asner, rather than getting in his car and leaving, turned around and walked right back into the studio. “You just sat there on your asses and let me bomb like that?” he said. “I was terrible. And you know it was terrible and you were too polite to tell me. Don’t be so f******g polite. Tell me what you want in this character.
They worked through the character for half an hour, then did a second try at the reading. He’d won everyone over except for Moore, but according to Asner, producers boldly told her, “That’s your Lou Grant,” and she was sold.
Mary Was Originally Supposed To Be a Divorcée Working for a Gossip Columnist
When the show was in development in the late 1960s, producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns had pitched Mary as a recent divorcée, writes Armstrong. Moore, who had gone through a divorce herself, was on board. The original vision differed in another major way, too: Mary was supposed to be the assistant to a snappy gossip columnist in Los Angeles.
They were less attached to the Los Angeles idea, so that was quickly scrapped for a news show in Minneapolis. As for the divorcée bit, Brooks and Burns considered throwing in the towel but didn’t like the optics of quitting, so they went back to the drawing board and came up with a concept they felt played to Mary’s strength: She was setting off to the big city on her own after a big breakup rather than a doomed marriage.
Producers Loved the Fashion Possibilities of Minneapolis
While re-evaluating the show’s premise and setting, Brooks and Burns landed on Minneapolis for a few reasons, according to Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: It stood out against the New York- and Los Angeles- dominated media environment, they loved the dynamic of the city being huge for Mary and tiny for New Yorker Rhoda, and the bad weather could provide plot points and unique visuals.
Another thing Minneapolis could provide: coats, and lots of them. The costume department certainly took full advantage, because Mary’s coats went on to become iconic.
Betty White Was Supposed To Be In Only One Episode
One of the series’ most beloved roles didn’t come around until season four, and it was only supposed to be temporary. Betty White played Sue Ann Nivens, an outwardly sweet host of a show called “The Happy Homemaker,” with an aggressive, sex-crazed side . In her first episode, she wantonly tries to seduce Phyllis Lindstrom’s (Cloris Leachman) husband, leading to escalating tension as Phyllis and Sue Ann film a cooking segment about a chocolate soufflé.
White was a longtime friend of Moore — and a big fan of the show — before being offered the role, and the episode was such a hit that she was brought on as a regular. The morning after that first episode, according to Armstrong, Moore came to White’s doorstep with a real-life soufflé.
It’s Likely the First American Sitcom to Feature Birth Control Pills
On The Dick Van Dyke Show, which Moore starred in from 1961-1966, the actress and her on-screen husband, Dick Van Dyke, slept in separate beds and couldn’t say the word “pregnant” to appease censors. However, just a few years later on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, not only did Mary have sex out of wedlock, she openly took birth control pills.
In a 1972 episode — the same year that a supreme court decision made birth control available to unmarried women in all states — Mary is having dinner with her father when her mother shouts, “Don’t forget to take your pill!” Mary and her father both yelled, “I won’t,” and the embarrassed look on Mary’s face shows that she doesn’t just take a pill, but The Pill.
Its realistic portrayal of the sex lives of women in the 1970s walked a fine line for the audiences of the time, with a lot of it hiding in quips like that one. But the series was still open about what it was doing. “I’m hardly innocent,” Mary says in one episode. “I’ve been around. Well, maybe not around, but I’ve been nearby.”
Valerie Harper Almost Didn’t Get the Role of Rhoda Because She Was Too Pretty
Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary’s Bronx-born sidekick, was the last major role to be cast in the series, with more than 50 actresses reading opposite Moore for the part. Valerie Harper nailed her audition as Rhoda and even brought her own cloth for washing Mary’s apartment window in her first scene. But the producers weren’t sure she matched their vision.
“She was something we never expected the part to be… which is someone as attractive as she was,” Burns said in Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. “But you’ve got to go with the talent.” Director Jay Sandrich felt strongly Harper was right for the role and suggested she not wear any makeup for her callback.
Producers immediately changed their minds when they brought Moore in to read a scene with Harper. Rhoda’s character switched gears a little bit — rather than being unattractive, which is subjective anyway, Rhoda just felt like she was unattractive.
“Rhoda felt inferior to Mary, Rhoda wished she was Mary,” Harper later recalled. “All I could do was, not being as pretty, as thin, as accomplished, was: ‘I’m a New Yorker, and I’m going to straighten this shiksa out.’”
The Real Owner of Mary’s Apartment Building Displayed Political Banners To Keep Producers From Coming Back
The 1892 home that provided the exteriors for Mary’s apartment became so famous that the owners were inundated with visitors and tour buses, and eventually, they’d had enough. When they got word that the crew was coming back to film more exterior shots in 1972, owner Paula Giese displayed a large “Impeach Nixon” banner prominently across the front. (She was a prominent political activist, so it was a two-for-one deal.)
It worked. They didn’t get their new shots, and Mary eventually ended up moving.
The Character Ted Baxter Was Based on News Anchor Jerry Dunphy
Jerry Dunphy was a legendary news anchor in the Los Angeles market, known for his head of white hair, and his signoff: “From the desert to the sea to all of southern California.” His style became so well-known in broadcast journalism that he often played a small role as a newscaster in movies, too. He inspired the egotistical, dim-witted Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), although Dunphy had a better head on his shoulders — and much better ratings. Dunphy also inspired the character Kent Brockman on The Simpsons.