Mary Tyler Moore, Betty White, and Gavin MacLeod in the newsroom of the ficticious WJM-TV where Mary Richards made it after all.
Work has been especially grueling all month long, and I have felt out of it nearly every night because of it. Thursday was particularly bad, and it took me even longer than usual to get my Friday Links post ready to go. I kept feeling as if I was missing something, but couldn’t figure out what.
So I was surprised when I was skimming through the post late last night to see that I had completely left off the stories I thought I’d bookmarked about the deaths of Mary Tyler Moore and Mike Connors. Then one of the first things I saw when I got on line this morning were people posting tributes to John Hurt.
Let’s begin with Mary: Mary Tyler Moore, beloved TV icon who symbolized the independent career woman, dies at 80. Earlier in the week I saw someone comment about how much they loved watching Mary in reruns of the Dick Van Dyke Show and the Mary Tyler Moore show, and opining that the reason he wasn’t seeing more people commented on her death on line was because he was much older than most social media users. Which made me feel ancient, because I didn’t watch either of Moore’s most successful television shows in reruns. I watched them when they were on prime time. Yes, I was alive and watching television before The Dick Van Dyke Show went off the air in 1966 and into syndication.
Mary broke weird ground in that role. When they were in pre-production she argued with the wardrobe department because they wanted her in a skirt and high heels for every scene. “No one vacuums in high heels!” she said. In 1961 they actually had to get permission from network executives for Mary to wear pants on screen. The network famously agreed to only one scene per episode in pants. Which the show stuck to for all of three episodes. Then they started sneaking in more scenes, and more. Eventually not only did Laura appear in pants for most of the scenes at home, but in the real world sales of Capri pants went through the roof! How Mary Tyler Moore Subverted TV Sexism with a Pair of Capris.
Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore in a scene from the Dick Van Dyke Show.
There were lots of scenes where Moore danced in the series. Since the premise of the show was that Van Dyke’s character, Rob Petrie, was the head writer for a popular musical variety television series, and his wife Laura was a retired Broadway dancer. Moore had started her show business career as a dancer.
When the Dick Van Dyke show when off the air, Moore went back to Broadway and tried her hands at movies before returning to TV as Mary Richards, a 30-something single woman moving to a new city where she hoped to start a new life. The original pilot script made reference to her character being recently divorced, and once again network execs freaked out. The executives won that battle, though, by insisting that they didn’t object to showing a divorced woman on TV, but rather the fear that, because the earlier series had been so popular, audiences would think she had divorced Dick Van Dyke’s character, and wonder where her son was! (So, yes, they thought the audience was too stupid to understand the same actress was playing a different character, or something.)
The script was changed to make it a reference to her being left at the altar by her fiance. The show still broke sexist stereotypes. Moore’s character’s love life was never the main focus of the show. It was used for comedic effect from time to time, but at no point in the series was it an ongoing plot, nor did you ever have the feeling that Mary’s happy ending would depend on getting married. The show was so popular that there were several spin-offs. It had a number of iconic episodes (difficult to say whether the absolute funniest was the Chuckles the Clown episode, from which the title of this post comes, or the Mary Hosts Her First Dinner episode). I tried to never miss an episode (which meant actually being near a TV when in broadcast each week back then), and it’s the first series that I remember watching, very sadly, the series finale. Which was hilarious and heart-wrenching at the same time.
That through-line on the show: that Mary was having a full life as a woman being successful in her career without a husband, was believable because Moore’s acting made you believe it. And I know many woman who found that role model important. And maybe I wasn’t the only closeted queer teen-ager who found a similar hope for my future in that notion.
We’re Gonna Make It After All | Full Frontal with Samantha Bee:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
Now let’s move on to Mike: Mike Connors, Long-Running TV Sleuth in ‘Mannix,’ Dies at 91. The detective series, Mannix, was nothing like either of those shows. Though it was one of the early series to feature an african-american actress in a regular supporting role (Peggy, played by Gail Fisher, was his secretary and assistant). For me, personally, it is also unlike Moore’s two most famous series in a weird way. I know we watched Mannix faithfully for most of the eight years it was on the air. I feel a strong fondness for the show whenever it is mentioned, or if I see photos from the show, and I can close my eyes and visualize the title sequence clearly.
Mike Connors and Gail Fisher in a publicity photo. Fisher was the first black woman to win an Emmy.
But I don’t remember hardly anything about any actual episodes. There is only one episode whose plot I remember at all, and it was mostly because it was a ridiculous gimmick! (Connor’s titular character, Joe Mannix, is nearly killed by a sniper or similar, and suffers psychosomatic blindness for the entire episode; his cop friends and Peggy then go to all sorts of elaborate lengths to hide the blindness as an attempt to lure his would-be killer into trying to kill him again; the killer eventually takes Peggy hostage, and Mannix has to force himself to see again in order to save her.) I know I liked the show, but other than that one episode, no plots or sequences stuck in my memory.
The more I’ve thought about it this week, the more I realize that I remember more about Fisher’s character than I do about the supposed star of the show. So even though Ms. Fisher died fifteen years ago, let’s not forget her: Gail Fisher, 65, TV Actress Who Won Emmy for ‘Mannix’.
And finally, John: John Hurt, who played Quentin Crisp, Caligula, Winston Smith and Mr Ollivander, has died. John played so many wonderful roles, but to me he will always be Quinton Crisp.
John Hurt as Quentin Crisp:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)