Lots of requests for Mary Tyler Moore stories. Some I can tell. Others I’ll save for my book, tentatively titled “I've been thrown out of show business”. But I will say this, she is one of the most gifted comic actresses I have ever worked with, but God was she tough. And part of the blame goes to Bill Cosby.
My partner, David Isaacs and I created and executive produced Mary’s 1985 comeback vehicle, MARY for CBS. We got the best reviews of any series we ever created, we got a 26 share the night we premiered (which today would get a five year pick up, two spin offs, and a board game), had a wonderful cast, Danny DeVito to direct and the whole thing crashed and burned in thirteen episodes. It was all the more disappointing because we had idolized Mary. I wanted to be a comedy writer growing up after watching THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. If that was how you get a Laura Petrie hand me the rubber chicken and seltzer bottle and send me off to war!
Mary’s return to television was the result of her movie career drying up. There were fewer good parts. And those that were out there were offered to Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, and even Christine Lahti first. She had just been in a huge stinkbomb with Dudley Moore called SIX WEEKS. And TV offered her a chance to rise from the ashes once again. But I don’t think she ever in her heart really wanted to do it. Same with her next two comeback thudburgers.
She was competing with the ghost of maybe the finest situation comedy ever produced (as were we), she was living alone 3000 miles away from her husband, forced to give up smoking the week we went into production, working with two young writers she didn’t know, was given a bad time slot, and she had been fed a load of crap that her return to television would be for CBS what COSBY was for NBC.
Any two of those or just the smoking one by itself was enough to kill a show. We faced ALL of them. And as I like to say, it was like dragging a dead horse across the finish line to shoot it.
As Mary became unhappy and isolated she became difficult. Very confrontational. Think ORDINARY PEOPLE but without the warmth. It got so bad we wanted to just leave lit cigarettes everywhere in her path.
CBS loved the pilot. So much that they thought they could start a night with it, a la COSBY. It was a sophisticated 9 PM show, not family friendly fare designed to compete against a top ten hit in HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN. The day of the premiere there was a betting pool on the stage to guess our share for that night. 48? 50? 52? We were sooo fucking dead. Needless to say, when we premiered with a paltry 26 Mary threw in the towel and wanted off the show. Week ONE!!
From then on she pretty much hated everything and everybody. We were asked to fire two cast members…over the Christmas break. Directors who had been signed for multiple episodes begged out after one. Writers rotated in and out. We were on the front lines forever calling for fresh troops.
I would get calls at home every weekend from Mary. (I think my partner moved several times to throw her off his scent.) And here is just an example of what we were going through. She was very excited because Bill Cosby had just called her. I said, “Yeah, so what? You’re Mary Tyler Moore. He should be excited talking to you.” The Cos (excuse me -- Dr. William H. Cosby, Jr. Ed.D) had watched a couple of episodes and knew what was wrong. Mary needed to be more like Rocky. She needed to have more triumphs. I wasn’t sure how to respond. I asked her if she had ever seen ROCKY? She said, “Yes. Of course. Why?” I gently reminded her that in the movie he loses. He gets the shit beaten out of him but manages to remain conscious. That's the triumph. Mary slammed down the phone. I suspect the language she used afterwards was more colorful than "Oh, Mr. Levine."
That was a typical exchange. In looking back, Mary never should have done the show. We never should have done the show. We were in our mid 30’s. What the hell did we know about writing for a middle aged woman?
And when the great Dr. William H. Cosby Jr., Ed.D had his comeback vehicle and it bombed I wanted to cheer him up by sending him the Rocky theme.