She Made It After All: How Mary Tyler Moore Changed Television - New York State Bar Association (2024)

7.2.2024

By David Krell

She Made It After All: How Mary Tyler Moore Changed Television - New York State Bar Association (1)

Performers entertain. Some inspire. Mary Tyler Moore did both.

Thrice nominated for an Emmy and winning twice for “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which aired on CBS from 1961 to 1966, Moore’s next project was the starring role in “Holly Golightly,” a musical stage version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Unfortunately, harsh out-of-town reviews prompted the show to close in December 1966; Moore would have to wait for Broadway. In 1980, she won a special Tony Award for “Whose Life Is It Anyway?”

A string of movies followed the “Holly Golightly” role in the late 1960s – “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?,” and “Change of Habit” with Elvis Presley. She also starred in the TV movie “Run a Crooked Mile.”

Rejoining her TV co-star for the 1969 CBS special “Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman” proved to be a turning point not only for her career but also the TV industry at large. Impressed by the ratings, CBS executives believed that Moore’s best platform was prime time television and sought to bring her back into the network’s fold. James L. Brooks and Allan Burns co-created “Mary Tyler Moore,” set around the personal and work lives of Mary Richards, an associate news producer at the fictional TV station WJM in Minneapolis.

Debuting on Sept. 19, 1970, “Mary Tyler Moore” – also known as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” – showcased the comedy, vulnerability, and depth of its titular star as well as signaling a new era for women on TV. A single woman in the workplace was a rare scenario for the primetime landscape in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but CBS balked at the suggestion that Moore’s character would be a divorced woman looking to start anew. In her memoir “After All,” Moore explained the executives’ reasoning: “Well, she can’t be divorced! Not only is divorce an offensive life choice, but they will think she’s divorced from Dick Van Dyke!”[1]

So, Brooks and Burns made Moore’s character a 30-year-old woman moving from the Minnesota suburbs to Minneapolis for a clean slate after a relationship had ended. Moore credited her then husband Grant Tinker for navigating the business side of show business. Their main source of power was ownership of the show. “Grant was working for Twentieth-Century-Fox Television at the time, but he extricated himself so that a production company of our own could be formed to shape this project,” recalled Moore. “It was he who laid all the groundwork and chose the people who created our tiny empire, MTM. It was, over the years, what would come to be referred to as the “Camelot” of independent television production.”[2]

By owning the production company, Moore and Tinker had a financial stake and, consequently, valuable leverage if the sitcom succeeded. It did. “Mary Tyler Moore” aired for seven seasons, won 29 Emmys, and became a fixture of quality programming, earning the label “Tiffany Network” for CBS. Moore was nominated every year for an Emmy and won four times.

MTM became a powerful entity. There were the spinoffs “Rhoda,” “Phyllis,” and “Lou Grant” in addition to “The Bob Newhart Show,” “The Tony Randall Show,” and “The White Shadow” among the variety of productions. After she ended her sitcom, Moore starred in two short-lived variety shows that displayed her singing and dancing talents: “Mary” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Hour.”

In the 1980s, MTM’s success continued with “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere” among the standouts. They were trailblazers in storytelling; each show routinely depicted storylines across several episodes rather than offering closure by the end of an episode. Plus, the writers and producers injected realism often lacking in TV shows. Cops did not always catch the bad guys in the Hill Street precinct and doctors did not always save patients at Boston’s St. Eligius Hospital.

Moore was not the first performer to own a production company. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith formed United Artists in 1919 to have control over the production and distribution of their films. Van Dyke had been a partner in Calvada Productions, which produced “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” His partners were the show’s creator, Carl Reiner, along with Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas.

Thomas also had his own production company – Danny Thomas Productions. “The Andy Griffith Show” fell under its auspices, as did the spinoffs “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” andMayberry R.F.D”. Other shows included “The Tycoon,” “That Girl,” and “The Mod Squad.”[3]

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz formed Desilu to produce “I Love Lucy.” In the 1960s, Ball gave the green light for Desilu to produce “Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible.” “The Lucy Show” and “Here’s Lucy” also belonged to Desilu.

TVS Entertainment, a British concern, bought MTM in 1988. “I’m very happy about it because it allows the company to grow and it frees some dollars for me to get more involved with philanthropic projects,” said Moore of the deal worth a reported $320 million.[4] It was not a surprising statement. Moore, a diabetic, was the international chairwoman for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

The deal ignited quite a windfall, though Moore revealed that she took a huge financial hit because of its structure. “Alas, one-third of my share from the sale was in the form of TVS stock, which hit bottom before it could pay a dividend.”[5]

The MTM library has been sold several times since the TVS deal. Disney presently owns the extraordinary roster of shows whose ownership began with two people: an actress and her husband bold enough to want control –financial and otherwise – over the production bearing her name.

David Krell is the author of “1962: Baseball and America in the Time of JFK, ”and “Do You Believe in Magic? Baseball and America in the Groundbreaking Year of 1966.” This article originally appeared in EASL Journal, the publication of the Entertainment, Arts & Sports Law Section of NYSBA. For more information, please visit NYSBA.ORG/EASL.

Endnotes

  1. Mary Tyler Moore, After All (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995), 142.
  2. Moore, 142.
  3. “The Andy Griffith Show” was a spinoff of “The Danny Thomas Show.” In a 1960 episode, Danny’s character gets a speeding ticket from Sheriff Andy Taylor in Mayberry, North Carolina. “Danny Meets Andy Griffith,” CBS, February 15, 1960.
  4. Russell Kishi, TVS of Britain Buys MTM for $320 Million, United Press International, July 6, 1988, https://www.upi.com/Archives/1988/07/06/TVS-of-Britain-buys-MTM-for-320-million/5858584164800/.
  5. Moore, 295.
She Made It After All: How Mary Tyler Moore Changed Television - New York State Bar Association (2024)

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