In the middle of a crowded street in Minneapolis, Mary Richards reaches for her Tam O’Shanter and tosses it gleefully into the air, while overhead Sonny Curtis sings ‘You might just make it after all’.
But, in these opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show we’re all familiar with, there really was no doubt about it – Mary Tyler Moore, the girl from Brooklyn who always dreamed of being a star, really had made it after all. Across seven seasons, it became one of the best-loved programmes on the box, and her warm and witty character set a precedent for what a happy, smart 30-something single woman could look like on TV.
Life after Laura
From her first job as a dancing elf for the Happy Hotpoint commercials in the Fifties, Mary made her big break when she was cast by Carl Reiner in 1961 as the wife Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show. Sharp, full of energy and with her trademark tight Capri pants, Mary’s character soon became a favourite on the show, eventually winning the actress an Emmy award. But when the show came to an end in 1966, Mary was left at a loose end. She tried for a career in the movies, but only one film, Thoroughly Modern Millie, was a hit.
So when the chance came up to star in a 1969 Dick Van Dyke special, The Other Woman, she leapt at the opportunity. The show – inspired by the fact people thought Dick was cheating on his real wife Marjorie with his screen wife Laura – was a roaring success. And on the back of that, Mary and her husband Grant Tinker were able to successfully pitch a newsroom sitcom idea they’d had. The producers at CBS granted them a half-hour slot with a guarantee of 24 episodes. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had got the green light.
Mary Richards, the star of the show, was always going to be a savvy, plucky woman. Living in Apartment D in Minneapolis, upstairs from her bossy, married friend Phyllis (played by Cloris Leachman) and downstairs from the brash, Bronx-born Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), Mary was originally imagined as a divorcee, looking for a new job and home after her husband had left her.
However, CBS told the show’s creators there were four things audiences would not welcome into their living rooms: New Yorkers, Jews, men with moustaches and divorced women! And so Mary was reconceived, this time as a woman who’d recently broken off a two-year long engagement and was looking to start a new life, supporting herself without a man.
In a refreshingly new take for TV viewers, Mary went through the series embracing her single status, defining herself not by her personal life, but by her career at the news station as well as her empowering female friendships. She was smart and stable, kind and aspirational, and the girl everyone, both on and off screen, adored.
But she was, wonderfully, no goody two-shoes, either, once saying: “I’m hardly innocent. I’ve been around. Well, maybe not around, but I’ve been nearby.”
She quietly, and with her signature exuberant smile, introduced us to what were some tough topics, too, with the series covering the likes of infidelity, juvenile delinquency, homosexuality and addiction.
One of the most memorable episodes, however, was when she showed us how to laugh in the face of death in Chuckles Bites the Dust, where Mary attends the funeral of the WJM children’s show host Chuckles the Clown. As the rest of the news team cracked jokes about the clown’s unusual demise – he’d been dressed as Peter Peanut when a rogue elephant had tried to shell him – Mary was meant to keep a straight, mournful face. But every time Mr Fee-Fi-Fo, one of Chuckles’ characters was mentioned, she burst into hysterics.
Mary later recalled in her autobiography that her cheeks were red raw from doing that scene, it was so hard to stop laughing.
While the show came to a close after seven seasons – Mary wanted to end it while it was still a ratings hit – and the cast bid each other a fond farewell in 1977, the show would leave a legacy as wonderful as Mary’s big, beaming smile.
On 25th Jan 2017 aged 80 Mary sadly died at Greenwich hospital of a cardiopulmonary arrest after she had contracted pneumonia. She was said to be surrounded by her loving friends and husband.