Sitcoms in the 70s didn’t get much more popular or progressive than The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It wasn’t afraid to mention taboo topics, including birth control and homosexuality.
It put everything out into the open, but its cast did manage to keep a few things to themselves. Only superfans will know the truth about how they got their parts and how closely they resembled them. Even actors who got minor roles had interesting stories to tell about them.
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The Cast Was Almost Entirely Different
Ed Astner hadn’t yet established himself as a comedic actor when the Mary Tyler Moore Show aired its first episode on September 19, 1970. That didn’t matter to casting director Ethel Winant. She believed in him after seeing him on the 1964 drama show Slattery’s People.
The showrunners brought him in for an audition. No one liked his acting, especially his delivery of the now famous line “you’ve got spunk…I hate spunk.” They had already decided not to cast him until he turned around and walked right back into the studio.
He said he knew that he was terrible but seemed angry that they hadn’t said anything to him about his delivery. He asked them what they wanted from the character. They worked as a team for half an hour until he gave them a second reading. He won over everyone…except for Mary Tyler Moore herself.
Gavin MacLeod came on next after Ed. He read for the role of Lou Grant but asked to read for her coworker Murray Slaughter instead. The casting directors agreed that he was better for the part.
Rhoda Morgenstern was one of the last roles to be cast. Valerie Harper fought against 50 other actresses. She nailed the audition, but there was only one problem; she was too attractive. They’d envisioned the character as Mary’s frumpy friend.
Director Jay Sandrich felt that Rhoda might still be right for the part but asked her not to wear any makeup for her callback. Her talent won the team over. They changed her character from being unattractive to only feeling that she was unattractive and inferior to Mary.
Betty White Wasn’t Supposed to Be a Permanent Fixture
Betty White first appeared in an episode of Season 4. She played Sue Ann Nivens, a sweet but aggressive and sex-crazed host of The Happy Homemaker show. She tries to seduce Phyliss Lindstrom’s husband until she appears with Sue Ann and tries to bake a chocolate souffle.
Betty and Mary had been friends for years. She appeared on her doorstep with a real souffle the day after the episode aired. They eventually asked her to stay on as a series regular.
Ted Knight Almost Stopped Playing Ted Baxter
Mary Tyler Moore Show producer Dave Davis saw Ted Knight in a local production of You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running. He suggested they should drop other possible actors such as John Anniston and Lyle Waggoner and have him read for the part of Ted Baxter.
He was a struggling actor at the time and had to use a bit of his rent money to purchase a blue blazer to look the part. The layers he brought to the character made it worth the investment.
The role made Ted Knight famous and got him out of poverty, but he did come to resent it in a way. He walked into co-creator Allan Burn’s office crying one day. He said he couldn’t play the character anymore because everyone couldn’t separate him from his ditzy onscreen persona.
Allan reminded him of other comedic actors who weren’t like their characters. It was enough to console Ted, and he continued on the show. It wasn’t just a growing experience for him. His character became a more well-rounded individual thanks to a few special episodes, and he even got married.
Hazel Frederick Appeared in Every Episode
She may not be a name you know, but her face is familiar to all fans of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She appeared in one of its most important scenes.
Hazel Frederick exited Donaldson’s Department Store in Minneapolis one day in 1969. She went to one of the busiest streets in the city. She noticed Mary Tyler Moore walking by and tossing her hat into the air. It was such a gleeful scene that the show’s crew filmed it for the opening credits.
A BIt of Tragedy
Barbara Cloeby appeared as Sherry in the episode Will Mary Richards Go to Jail? She was invited back for another episode called You Try to Be a Nice Guy. She gives Mary a revealing green dress that’s still remembered by fans of the show today.
Barbara later co-starred in the Cloris Leachman spin-off. She filmed only three episodes before she and a male friend were tragically shot and killed in a parking lot in Venice, California on July 24, 1975. He lived long enough to describe the attackers, but they were never found.
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The Men Wanted Rhoda to Go
Valerie Harper got along with everyone on the Mary Tyler Moore Show set and had no feuds with anyone. Her character also became popular enough to get a spin-off series. The men were glad to see her go, even though it wasn’t anything personal.
Before her departure, most of the show’s episodes took place in Mary’s apartment and focused on the girls. The male cast knew that without her, there’d be more scenes in the newsroom and they’d get more screentime.
When a woman like Mary Tyler Moore runs a show, it’s natural for a bit of competition to begin between the men. Ed admits that he, Gavin, and Ted always tried to be her favorite actor. The MTM Gag Reel where they try to sing the Johnny Mathis song More for her is one of the best pieces of evidence. It’s available to watch online.
Relationships On Set Didn’t Always Mirror the Ones On Screen
Gavin MacLeod and Cloris Leachman had already had a negative work experience together before they got together on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. They were as uncomfortable around each other as their characters were at first. It took them a few seasons to become friends.
Ted Knight and Ed Asner’s relationship, however, was one where art didn’t imitate life. They were enemies in the show but close in reality. They did get into an argument after filming wrapped, but it wasn’t serious, and they reconciled before Ted’s death from cancer in 1985.
Ed also said that the entire cast was like family for years. They were close but “snapped like taffy” and went their separate ways in the end.
Mary and Robert Redford
Mary’s crush on Robert Redford comes up several times throughout the series. This may be another instance of life imitating art. The real Mary Tyler Moore did work with him on Ordinary People, a film he directed in 1980. It’s unclear whether she actually had a crush on him, though.
One of the most recognizable tropes in sitcoms is the “invisible character” that gets mentioned often but never shown in person. It’s common in modern shows like The Big Bang Theory, but it’s also found in many classic shows like Happy Days and The DIck Van Dike Show.
Lars Lindstrom is mentioned in several episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show but is only referred to off-screen. He doesn’t even appear in an episode called The Lars Affair that centers around him.
What About Mom and Dad?
Nanette Fabray played Mary’s mother. She said in an EmmyTvLegends interview that she was disappointed to only appear on two episodes and never be asked back. She’d expected to become a series regular and even confronted Mary about it once.
The show also found a place for John Aniston. He’d already been considered for other roles and received two callbacks for the role of the anchorman but was cast as Mary’s father.
Mary Can Dance
Georgia Engel does a dance number on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary does not, despite being a former professional dancer like her character.
There’s one major episode that focuses on this issue. Mary admits her aspirations to become a ballerina but fails when she attempts to pull off a basic move.
The show creators felt that they could draw on her real experience to inform the character. It still would have been interesting to see her move to music.
The First Curtain Call
Grant Tinker and Mary Tyler Moore decided to end the show after seven seasons. It still had strong ratings, but they didn’t want to risk a dip in quality. Instead, they decided to go out with a bang in a way that made history.
It was the first network show to feature a final curtain call. The cast introduces themselves to the audience before the end credits roll.
Spin-Offs and Following Shows
The Mary Tyler Moore show spawned a string of spin-offs of varying success. Lou Grant lasted for five seasons and 114 episodes. Rhoda had five seasons and 110 episodes, four of which never aired. Phyllis lasted for two seasons and 48 episodes.
Every actor from the Mary Tyler Moore cast managed to star in shows after it ended. Gavin MacLeod headlined The Love Boat the same year. Ed Astner had Lou Grant. Ted Knight starred in Too Close for Comfort.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show had a 20th Anniversary Special in 1991. Most of the original cast came together to comment on old clips. Ted Knight had already died of cancer 5 years earlier.
There was a sequel of sorts in 2000. It was called Mary and Rhoda and focused on Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern. Cloris Leachman was offended that she wasn’t invited. She picketed outside during shooting, but it was more of a way to tease her former castmates.
Do you have a favorite member of the Mary Tyler Moore Show cast? Let us know in the comments below.