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Remembering Mary Tyler Moore and Her Groundbreaking Sitcom That Almost Wasn’t

The iconic entertainer died today. She was 80 years old

The legendary Mary Tyler Moore (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

On September 19, 1970, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” premiered: a mainstream sitcom about women in the workplace that millions of Americans could relate too. Today, its star, a feminist icon in her own right, Mary Tyler Moore, died. She was 80 years old.

Though “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” ran for seven season and became one of the most decorated shows of all time, it almost didn’t make it past its first season. The reason was because of its time slot, explains Jennifer Keishin Armstrong in her definitive book on the seriesMary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic.

The show, Armstrong writes, was initially slated to run on Tuesday nights on CBS. The competitive lineup would have spelled doom for the fledgling sitcom. But then, CBS’ head of programming Fred Silverman got his hand on the pilot. What happened next changed the show's fate. Silverman was so impressed that after he finished screening the episode, he immediately called up his boss. “You know where we’ve got it on the schedule? It’s going to get killed there, and this is the kind of show we’ve got to support,” he said, as Armstrong reports.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” got moved to Saturdays at 9:30, and the rest was history.

It's not hard to see why the pilot episode had Silverman hooked. Just take the scene where Moore's character, Mary Richards, gets hired as an associate producer for a Minneapolis television station—it's one of the most famous job interviews in television history.

During it, news producer Lou Grant (a loveable Ed Asner), gives Richards a hard look. “You know what? You’ve got spunk,” he says, grudgingly.

Moore, wearing a long brown wig to differentiate herself from the character she played on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” nods, graciously. “Well, yes.”

Grant’s face then does a 180. “I hate spunk,” he says, his eyes bugging out.

The scene is played for laughs, but it also served as an important mission statement for what “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” would be. In its 24-minute pilot, the show set itself up to tell the story of a 30-something single woman in the workplace with unapologetic “spunk.”

The last episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” aired seven years later on March 19, 1977. Fittingly called “The Last Show” it serves as a poignant way to say goodbye to Moore today. After her character turns off the lights in the newsroom for the last time at the end of the episode, the entire cast comes on for the show’s first and only curtain call.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” an announcer tells the Hollywood studio audience to thunderous, poignant applause. “For the last time, Mary Tyler Moore.”

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