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Time

October  28, 1974

Rhoda and Mary - Love and Laughs

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Tyler Moore

 

Valerie Harper

 

 

 

Photos:  John Zimmerman

 

Source:  Time.com

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was closed for vacation early this month. But one lonely figure could not stay away from the darkened set. "I sneaked back," she recalls, "to the place where I had spent four years of my life. I walked around, rubbed the couch where I had sat dozens of times and spotted that cookie jar shaped like a pumpkin. The stagehands keep it filled with real junk food — Oreos, Lorna Doones, the kind of crap that Wasp mothers keep on hand for kiddie snacks. Mary with her dia betes and me with my weight problems, we used to love to open that jar and just sniff the sugary smell. We'd say, 'Oh, wow!' then put the lid back on. So that's what I did. I took a sniff, put the lid back on and had a good nostalgic cry."

It was only Valerie Harper, over turning another bromide. If you are TV comedy's heiress apparent, you can go home again. Especially when home is three sets away from your own show. At 33, Mary's former confidante, the fat girl who grew too big for her bitches, now has her own show, Rhoda. It just may be the best thing to happen to Mon day night since pro football. On Rhoda's good evenings, she can produce more laughter than Edith Bunker put together. Even in the lady's off moments she is more credible than Maude and almost as pulchritudinous as Mary Tyler Moore.

Valerie and Mary both work for Mary Tyler Moore Enterprises, Inc., and between them they constitute a neatly balanced show business cartel. One of these leading ladies is sweet, the other spicy. One is conservative, the other radlib. One is tranquil, the other seems to have been born with sand under her skin. Double handed, they are bringing a new sophistication back to television entertainment.

The epoch of Hollywood's great, and great looking film comediennes—a group that extended from Carole Lombard and Constance Bennett to Jean Arthur and Lucille Ball—is as extinct as the Movie tone newsreel. Robert Redford and Paul Newman, Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, these are the happy couples who now hit it big at the box office. Audiences in search of funny girls have learned to forsake the theater for Valerie and Mary on the smaller screen. Mary opts for the soft approach. Every week, as Mary Richards, the effervescent assistant TV producer, she manages to discover fresh comic possibilities in herself and her supporting cast. It includes the crusty chief (Edward Asner), the acidulous news writer (Gavin MacLeod), the feline landlady (Cloris Leach-man), the anchor man with the pear-shaped tones and the pea-shaped brain (Ted Knight), plus a gaggle of hilarious performers who have all developed followings of their own. On Mary's shows, nothing is sacred and few things are profane: sex, inflation, urban miseries and small-time office politics are alive and laughing on prime time.

On her new season's series, only one priceless ingredient is missing—her longtime Minneapolis neighbor, Rhoda Morgenstern. For four years Valerie Harper impersonated that adamantime Jewish waif and grew more skilled with each show. This year, hi the best show-business tradition, she was strong enough to spin off to her own production. Her new series has relocated her in Manhattan, where Rhoda has actively searched for an apartment, a job and a man—and miraculously found all three. She has also found a supporting cast that rivals Mary's: Harold Gould (Pop), who helped sharpen The Sting; Nancy Walker (Ma), a former stage comedienne whose timing could be used to set observatory clocks; Julie Kavner (Rhoda's sister Brenda), a fresh face with an oversized appetite and talent to match. Rhoda has even been given a fiance, Joe (David Groh). On Oct. 28 they will exchange vows, rings and one-liners in an expanded one-hour special starring Mary and Rhoda.

It ought to be the top-rated comedy of the year. It will join—perhaps for the last time—two of the prettiest, wittiest comics in Hollywood. Mary can wrap an insult in velvet and put down a lover so gently that he never knows what happened until he wakes up on the sidewalk outside her apartment. Valerie can sketch a character with a series of straight lines and give an audience a solid minute of funny faces—without spilling a grain of makeup or a scintilla of style.

The weekend watchers have been in love with Mary for years. They have been tracking Hurricane Rhoda for almost as long. She was in fact born in the original Mary Tyler Moore pilot show, a zaftig 150-pounder who made everybody grin—everybody except the first preview audience, a group randomly selected by CBS programmers. Those 300 sages found the tough-talking, overweight neighbor "a negative character."

MTM developed that negative anyway, and it proved another picture entirely. Rhoda turned out to be a close relative of Tevye, a fiddler on the rueful whose face could shine with puzzlement as well as wisdom while she searched for career, meaning, laughs, irony and that sine qua non of the not-quite-liberated Msfit, a husband.

RHODA: What am I? I'm not married, I'm not engaged—I'm not even pinned. I bet Hallmark doesn 't even have a card for me!

Much of Rhoda's success derives from its parents, MTM Enterprises and the company's magisterial executive, Grant Tinker, 48. The lean-jawed New Englander who was lucky enough to marry Mary Tyler Moore was also canny enough to surround her with the best talent in the business. "My career," he says, "has been an inexorable march to get as close as I could to the creative product, working through people who made the shows." That march included stints at NBC and 20th Century-Fox, where he developed a sure instinct for commercial comedy and new talent, including Writer-Producers James Brooks and Allan Burns (see box page 60), the creators of both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda. Yet, as Tinker is the first to acknowledge, every supersedes owes its real velocity to its star. Mary Tyler Moore speaks for herself; her name is enough to attract 31 million viewers every Saturday night. Rhoda's secret is Valerie Harper, a soft-voiced, serious actress with a rare gift of gag.

The only expression Valerie Harper cannot seem to register is vanity. "I'm not a star," she insists. "I'm the same old shlep I always have been." She has it backwards; Valerie is no shlep; she is the same star she always has been, only now she is being paid like one—about $15,000 a show. This sudden rise in fortune has done worlds for her wallet but little for her psyche. Last week, in a rare moment of leisure, she confessed a recent dream to TIME Correspondent Leo Janos. "My three favorite actresses in the world—Anna Magnani, Anne Bancroft and Maureen Stapleton—invited me to perform with them in a play. I pleaded that I didn't know the part, but they told me not to worry; then they glided through a glass door and escorted me onto the stage. I stood there befuddled and speechless while they performed brilliantly. It was a classic actress's nightmare."

That bad dream is born of restless self-doubt. The daughter of a hockey player turned salesman, Valerie caromed from Canada across the U.S. with her parents until they were divorced. Wherever she went, the chunky, shinyeyed kid kept up her dancing lessons.

Mrs. Harper was sure that her little girl could perform for considerably more than kicks, and Mama knew best. By the time Valerie was 15, she was dancing in specialty numbers at Radio City Music Hall. "It was $70 a week, four shows a day," recalls the would-be Rockette, "forming shapes of Presidents' heads or twirling umbrellas—really class stuff." It took a while to graduate from that class. Val was next seen in the chorus of Li'I Abner, a musical that toured Las Vegas, then was filmed in Hollywood. During her stay in town, Valerie failed to contract anything but hepatitis. "The doctor told me to eat lots of bread and sugar to keep my strength up," she says. "What went up was my weight—from about 130 to 150."

HOCKEY STAR: Rhoda, I'm not talking about a one-night stand. We're in town till Thursday.

Back in New York City, she had a Rhoda-like private life: "All I saw in those days were dear homosexual friends or guys who were like brothers.

Serious dancers didn't get the heavy dates. The dancers who really scored were the nightclub chorines." In 1964 the fraternal dates were replaced permanently by Second City Actor Dick Schaal. Valerie joined her new husband's troupe and learned the fine art of improvisation.

Between industrial shows and Broadway musicals— Wildcat, Take Me Along—the dancer-actress became involved in a cacophony of labor disputes. She picketed General Motors for more integrated industrial shows and demonstrated for more blacks in Producer David Merrick's musicals. "One of the GM executives used to wink at me," says Valerie. "David Merrick, whom we called the Prince of Darkness, came out and said, 'You'll never work for me again.' "

An accurate forecast but an unnecessary one. After a few more picketing assignments—notably antiwar demonstrations in New York and the Poor People's March on Washington—Valerie and Dick moved to Los Angeles, where Schaal founded his own theater company, including Valerie, who acquired some polish and a few more ounces. When she heard that MTM was auditioning for the part of a Bronx Jewish girl, she tried out without much hope: "I'm not Jewish, not from New York, and I have a small shiksa nose." She was, in fact, a lapsed Catholic, but she had a flawless ear for intonation. After considering more than 50 actresses for the part, Mary beamed at Valerie and said the magic words: "That's Rhoda."

MOM: How come you 're not wearing a bra?

RHODA: Ma, I'm 33 years old.

MOM: That's all the more reason.

After long seasons of Big Rhoda jokes, the star finally put her weight —and her foot—down. Viewers had long suspected that underneath the avoirdupois there was a slim beauty screaming to get out. Now she emerged funnier than ever—and too big to stay put. Thus Rhoda was born.

But new security does not mean sanguinity. Valerie is still making her federal and local protests. "When Nixon fired Cox," she remembers, "I fired off a beauty of a telegram, and when Ford pardoned Nixon, I sat up half the night composing a wire about how ashamed he made me feel to be an American. The White House knows me by now."

Nor does she pull her punch lines backstage. On an upcoming show, Rhoda suspects that she's pregnant. The script called for her to say to the doctor: "I'm 33—I've just got under the wire, huh?" Valerie complained, "Hey, people get married at 33. What do we say to them?" The joke was expunged.

Valerie's demands are, in the end, a minor part of the MTM schedule. Both Rhoda and The Mary Tyler Moore Show are filmed on the spot where Mack Sennett once ran his fun factory. It is as delightful to work there in 1974 as it must have been in old Celluloid City.

Edward Asner, who plays Mary's on-screen boss, speaks for all MTM personnel when he says, "We never get bored around here. The scripts are too good."

MARY: So she dates the station manager. So they become good friends... very good friends. Why does that necessarily mean she's going to get your job?

SUE ANN: How do you think I got it?

The MTM success is, of course, mutual property; the syndication rights on her current shows alone would make Mary a millionairess. But her husband, Grant Tinker, has exclusive property rights to all the pressures of success. In addition to the long-running Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart shows, plus the overnight smash Rhoda, his company has been churning out a series of series. All bear the MTM trademark—a strong comic idea and a stronger supporting cast. But even these cannot guarantee infallibility. One show, the cantankerous new The Texas Wheelers, is Tinker's first failure, a comedy that guttered out because of low ratings. "My hope is that ABC will start it all over again, because the show never did get out of the gate," says the chief executive. Even if it is permanently canceled, the loss will be less than catastrophic; ABC will have to pay for nine shows that are already in the film cans. Another MTM show, Friends and Lovers, may be one of the year's most original sitcoms, even though the adventures of a Boston bassist, played by the delightfully eccentric comedian Paul Sand, have not enjoyed a Rhoda-like beginning. "Sand," admits Tinker, "is making an uphill run." Happily, he is winning that race; last week Friends and Lovers climbed up to ninth in the ratings.

In January, production will begin on Second Start, starring Bob Crane (Hogan 's Heroes). The premise shows promise: a 40-year-old insurance executive forsakes his job to attend medical school, skirmishing with wife and 14-year-old daughter while he crams for exams. Next year MTM Enterprises will depart from the comedy situation to produce two dramatic series.

That scheduling is not calculated to sweeten the disposition or lower the blood pressure. Tinker, the peripatetic executive, has been suffering from migraine headaches. One night this month he tossed restlessly in bed longing for some hobby to take his mind off office problems. Mary's suggestion could have come from one of her scripts: "How about mending injured birds?"

Rt such moments, the Mary Richards of the show and the Mary Tyler Moore of real life seem indistinguishable. Both are relentlessly optimistic and almost without ego.

As Mary the actress confesses, "I don't have to prove every week that I'm a star. I don't have to be stroked all the time. I enjoy being part of an ensemble."

That group has brought the MTM Show a slew of Emmies—always for others, never for Mary. Last year the debt was finally canceled when she received an Emmy for the best star in a leading comedy role. As far as Mary was concerned, it was just another sunny thing that happened on the way to the studio.

There is in fact a large gap between the show girl and the real one. For a long while, Mary's life was a string of situations without comedy. Like Valerie, Mary Tyler Moore is a lapsed Catholic and an early starter. The day after she graduated from high school in Los Angeles, where her father worked for a utility company, the young actress won her first TV assignment. She was unforgettable as Happy Hotppint, a sexless elf in appliance commercials. "Nothing can surpass the thrill when I saw myself on television," she remembers. "In fact, I was so excited I almost forgot about the pain. I was supposed to be a flat-chested neuter elf. Well, I wasn't flat-chested, and it was painful."

At 17, the elf wed a 27-year-old salesman, Richard Meeker. "I used him as a way to get out of the house," Mary confesses. "It was a pathetic reason to get married." Soon after the Meekers' son Richard was born, Mary landed her first dramatic television role. It was Happy Hotpoint all over again. As the velvet-voiced secretary on Richard Diamond, Mary was invisible, save for her hands and legs.

Still, they were nice legs, and it was better than being entirely off-camera. Mary was soon interviewed for the role of Danny Thomas' daughter in Make Room for Daddy. It was an epochal audition. Thomas turned her down gently: "With a nose like yours, my dear, you don't look like you belong to me." But a few years later, when Thomas was casting The Dick Van Dyke Show, he called for "the girl with the three names and the smile." By then Mary's marriage was all but finished; it was finally canceled in its eleventh year.

While the pilot for The Dick Van Dyke Show was being filmed, the recently separated Mary was introduced to an NBC executive whose own marriage had just dissolved. Mary and Grant were married three years later. The network elevated Tinker to vice president in the programming department and made his headquarters Burbank, Calif., where his bride happened to be working. A five-year idyll ended in 1966, when NBC ordered Tinker back to Manhattan, and Dick Van Dyke decided to leave his show to pursue a film career.

"I hated living hi New York again," says Tinker. "I didn't stay a year and asked them to let me out of my contract." In the meantime, his wife tried Broadway—and found fiasco.

The show was the Broadway musicalization of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. After disastrous previews, Breakfast was ceremoniously folded by Producer David Merrick, who was no kinder to Mary than he was to Valerie; the Prince of Darkness referred to the flop as "my Bay of Pigs."

Back in Hollywood, says Mary, "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."

 

LOU: lean't see myself with that sort ofwoman.

MARY: How many men is a woman allowed to have before she becomes "that sort of woman ?"

LOU: Six.

There was more scar tissue to come.

"I'll never forget going to a movie premiere," she recalls, "and being shoved out of the way by a screaming mob of photographers. 'Step aside, lady,' said one of them, 'here comes Mario Thomas.' " No one would ever step aside for Mary any more—or so it seemed at the tune. After a miscarriage, doctors discovered that she was severely diabetic. Since then she has had to give herself two insulin shots a day.

After the sadness of the late '60s, Mary needed some good news. It came from Dick Van Dyke. If the comedian had inadvertently ruined her career by quitting his show, he advertently restored it in 1969 when he appeared with his old co-star in a nostalgic special. The show drew enormous ratings and critical acclaim. CBS offered Mary the series of her choice. Given her husband's producing skills, the Neil Simon-and-soda scripts and the cast of aces, Mary soon owned Saturday night.

The success came too late to turn her head. She flashed the same radiant smile for double takes or disasters—including last year's two-month estrangement from Grant. Even now, no one, perhaps not even the principals, knows exactly what went wrong. It is a mark of Tinker's corner-office manner that he refers to the relationship as a kind of long-running show that had somehow slipped in the marital Nielsens. "We didn't have one of those grand jarring arguments," he says. "We had a great marriage from the beginning, but it had fallen below that standard."

MARY: / think you 're asking a lot of personal questions you have no right to ask.

LOU: You know you 've got spunk? I hate spunk.

Mary adds that "one cause of the separation was that I was too dependent on Grant, my best and only friend. I leaned on him too much." The air-conditioned temperament and the dispassionate self-analysis often make her seem to be an ice princess. But occasionally friends, and even viewers will catch a sudden, instantly covered vulnerability, an intimation that all is not Happy Hotpoint redivivus. Indeed Mary's own preference is not for her show's merry confrontations but for the occasional crying scenes. "Mostly," she says, "because I do them well. There's a childlike quality hi those scenes that I treasure." They are also a pressure valve. On one memorable show, Mary wailed to her boss, "You don't know what it's like being a perky cute person. No one realizes what's bubbling underneath: the doubts, fears, worries, tensions." She played it for laughs, but the scene had an undertow of genuine melancholy —and worked twice as well because of the contrast.

Since the reconciliation, Mary seems less likely to need the breakdown bits.

Her manic dieting has ceased. "Grant says it's all well and good," claims Mary, "but to remember that somewhere along the line Totie Fields looked like me on the way up." Still, the ex-dancer works with a ballet instructor four days a week and remains vain enough not to watch her old Dick Van Dyke shows because "it's like Dorian Gray in reverse."

Yet if the doyenne of sitcoms has altered her appearance, her off-screen life-style remains the same. At odd hours of the day Mary rattles around in her Bel-Air mansion overlooking the sixth hole of a manicured country club.

"You can hear a lot of 'goddammits' and 's.o.b.s' coming up through the windows," she says.

Much of the time the sounds echo in empty rooms. Her son Richard, 18, has left the Tinker home to live with his father.

Unlike her confidante, Mary sends no White House telegrams and pickets no establishments; indeed she is something of an establishment herself. Her off-screen energies are principally directed toward her adopted children: the programs of the fall and whiter schedule. The one closest to her affections is Rhoda—just as Valerie's favorite show remains Mary Tyler Moore's.

Between them, the two very different, identical comediennes are the season's brightest clowns. On every show they prove that women need not be dingbats or contralto foghorns to win applause or affection. Almost alone, they are bringing back the forgotten tradition of the beautiful clown. From the look of the ladies and the sound of their followers, TV '74 has a glow that extends to viewers who may yet be witnessing television's true Golden Age of comedy—stronger and longer than the one in the '50s. Indeed, Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper are enough to make almost anyone forget the comedies of the past. And even the crustiest nostalgia buffs cannot ponder Rhoda or The MTM Show without admitting that on these long autumn evenings, all that glitters is not old.

MARY: Who cares if our ratings go down a few points?

TED: Right. So long as the people keep watching.

 

 

     

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