MARY TYLER MOORE IS GONE, BUT LAURA PETRIE AND MARY RICHARDS (AND A WOMAN NAMED DIANE) LIVE ON
“Everybody of a certain generation is feeling an emotional pull today,” says one anonymous TV fan online. “How do you explain having such a reaction to the death of a woman you never met, but remember fondly?”
True to form, at least as most had come to think of her through the decades, she was there to support an old pal.
Never mind that she was playing a character named Diane to her co-star’s Angie, in a TV series that had nothing to do with the seminal one that famously paired them 40 years earlier. Everybody assembled to watch the 2013 taping of Hot In Cleveland that reunited Mary Tyler Moore with Valerie Harper knew that what they were really seeing was Mary and Rhoda, together again.
Mary and Rhoda and Phyllis and Sue Ann and Georgette, to be complete.
Harper’s illness made it happen. Only a month earlier, the Emmy-winner announced to the world that she’d been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, its prognosis bleak. Scores of interviews with and about her followed; tributes to her long TV career dating back to Mary Tyler Moore and its award-winning Rhoda spin-off piled up. Seventies nostalgia soon came to a full bloom, and quicker than anyone could say “Tipperary” the producers of the TV Land sitcom Hot In Cleveland, which already traded heavily in prime-time’s past, were readying an episode that would reunite Moore with Harper, as well as with the rest of the female cast of Mary Tyler Moore (Cloris Leachman, Betty White, and Georgia Engel — the latter two, helpfully, already Cleveland regulars).
Come tape night in April, it isn’t merely nostalgia that’s the order of the day, though. It’s history. Mary Tyler Moore, star of two long-running classic sitcoms and a household name for 52 years, is television itself. And not only is she back in front of sitcom cameras alongside old colleagues, she’s back doing it here, at CBS Studio Center in the Los Angeles suburb of Studio City, where their show and so many others from Moore’s MTM Productions were shot back when — a place affectionately referred to since simply as The MTM Lot.
Babe is back in The House That Ruth Built.
Plus, if the sporadic reports about the 76-year-old’s declining health are to be believed, both the performance and the appearance just might be her last. So a circle of sorts is being completed this night. Anticipation and excitement levels are high.
Inside the soundstage, where attendance is standing-room-only, the first thing audience members notice when seated for the taping is a scrim fronting part of one of the sets to be used for the night’s show. A go-to prop usually employed when producers of live-audience comedy want to keep certain elements of a show a surprise until cameras roll, the partition this night seems designed instead to accommodate the special guest: Moore’s well-documented vision problems, the result of a near-50-year battle with diabetes, will mean no walking into or out of her scenes. Instead, she’ll be seated as they begin and remain seated throughout, as the other characters come to her.
As her first scene approaches, about a half-hour into taping, but before action is called, the partition’s pulled aside, and there she is, at a table where the scene will play out. Applause begins, growing into a thunderous roar when a higher-up on the floor finally announces the obvious: “Ladies and gentleman, our special guest star tonight — Mary Tyler Moore!” And then the familiar Mary Tyler Moore “Love Is All Around” theme song starts playing through overhead speakers.
Everyone stands. Everyone claps. Everyone cries. Everyone. In the bleachers, on the unusually crowded soundstage floor, even off in the wings, where it’s reported that crew-members from the actress’s old shows have themselves reassembled in her honor. It’s a deafening eruption of devotion and appreciation for Mary Tyler Moore and what she represents. For the history on display in the form of this game but aging icon, 43 years removed from the premiere of her seminal self-titled show (nine more from her first Dick Van Dyke show), still with that smile.
Moved herself, the seven-time Emmy winner stands to take in the lengthy ovation, then graciously quiets the crowd to offer her thanks. She says she’s grateful for the acknowledgement tonight, and she’s glad to be here for her friend Valerie. Then the work begins.
She’s in but a few scenes — the storyline is about the five women in the episode, long-ago bowling teammates, having a rare reunion of their own — and there are the requisite in-jokes about their classic 70s past sprinkled throughout. The camaraderie among the group is obvious, informing the scenes and feeding the comedy. (Can it really be 40 years since these women acted together?) Mary Tyler Moore is indeed game, but she seems fragile both in appearance and delivery, a bit halting. Maybe it’s the health issues or her age. Maybe she’s out of practice. Maybe it’s just nerves being in front of a live audience again, aware of the significance of being here — to Valerie Harper, to the producers of Cleveland, to her own legacy.
Not that it matters to anyone watching.
Certainly not that it matters to me in the stands, alone in the fifth row.
It’s not that I wouldn’t miss Mary Tyler Moore’s appearance at this taping tonight. It’s that I couldn’t. The Mary Tyler Moore show is the singular reason I’m in Los Angeles at all the past 24 years, having captured me as a ten-year-old when it premiered September 19, 1970, making me first want to know more about television and then to work in it someday. Not a lick of which had to do with the sitcom’s famous association with the burgeoning women’s movement of the early 1970s (What’s that?) and everything everything to do with the fact that it kept a lonely kid both laughing and in good company for seven years as he sat in front of the small black-and-white TV in the basement of his Philadelphia rowhome.
Mary Tyler Moore turned the world on with her smile, but for me her show opened up the world, especially the world of TV, unveiling the many pieces of labor that seemed to go into the making of it, especially an ensemble comedy (and most especially a good one), even as I didn’t yet know what they really were. Making me wonder how I could be a part of it all someday as a working adult. Specifically, a part of something called Television City, headquarters for the show’s CBS network, the words I knew to be emblazoned on a red portico out front. A pipe dream that became a lottery-winning reality 23 years later, when after moving to Hollywood on a lark and with a prayer I was offered a job at CBS. And where I stayed for 15 years — my first office right above that red portico and my last on the very MTM lot where I’m sitting this night, on the second floor of a nearby office building that once housed MTM Productions itself.
A job that before it ended found me working alongside none other than the woman herself, consulting on a retrospective special commissioned by CBS that would honor (wait for it) the Mary Tyler Moore show.
So there just wasn’t a chance I’d miss the Cleveland taping.
I prevailed upon and got from the producers a single hard-to-come-by ticket for the heavily hyped reunion show. (Thank you, Todd.) And there in the fifth row that night I had my own little milestone to rival Mary’s — saluting the woman whose work inspired and led to my own. (That the night would also mark my own last time on the backlot, having left CBS a year or two earlier to teach and to write, would come to make the experience all the more important to me.)
The happy/sad thing about the spring 2013 taping that reunited the cast of the Mary Tyler Moore show, rushed together to support ailing Valerie Harper, once thought to have three months to live, is that Harper is still with us, four years later, her cancer being managed. And on this day, the day following January 25, 2017, it’s Mary Tyler Moore whom millions are mourning instead. (Cleveland was indeed, and fittingly, her final acting gig.) An actress with unparalleled professional success who faced her own illnesses in life and a laundry-list of other off-camera hardships.
The actress herself might offer up a reaction to the irony in the guise of alter ego Mary Richards — that such is merely life unfolding, as it always has and always will. That she was just glad to be around to help out and support a pal, part of the family she once surrounded herself with so long ago. The kind of colleagues, as she summed up in her final lines of the final episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show in March of 1977, who simply make a person “feel less alone and really loved.”
The title of the 2013 Hot In Cleveland episode that reunited her with Rhoda and company — and us — was called “Love Is All Around.”
Because that night, it was.
(Photos courtesy of TNT, Screen Actors Guild, CBS, TV Land)