Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Cos and effect

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.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear in this story that while it was an uncomfortable experience, you do have sincere empathy for the woman. Of course, I would think Mary had been developing a hardness and emotional distance for some time, after the accidental death of her only child (it's food for thought that subsequently she would play out an identical scenario in ORDINARY PEOPLE). And on your end, Ken, I consider it a bit of hubris to say you and David knew nothing about writing for "middle-aged" women. According to my calclulations, there is only about a dozen years difference in your ages. Not small, certainly, but hardly the yawning chasm you intimate.

VP81955 said...

Agree with Paul, that it was perhaps the no-win situation rather than something inherent about Mary (can't believe I used that phrase). If you two were alone on an elevator (and no, I'm not going to add the sitcom cliche of it suddenly stopping mid-floor!), it might be tense but I doubt you'd be at each other's throats.

But as much as I'll always love Mary Richards and Laura Petrie, as a fellow diabetic Mary's greatest role has been as a spokeswoman for those of us who have this condition, and the work she's done in fundraising and public awareness has helped millions.

One other thing -- that series was an important breakthrough for Katey Sagal, who went from there to her famed role as Peg Bundy on "Married...With Children." At the time, Katey was arguably better known for having backed up Bette Midler and for being related to the Iowa twins who had starred on a short-lived "Double Trouble" sitcom. What was she like, pre-fame?

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken, I was trying to find a way to e-mail you a personal message, but couldn't figure it out... so I guess I'll have to leave it as a comment.

I just want to let you know, that both you and your partner have been two of my absolute favorite comedy writers since I first discovered your work on M*A*S*H back in the late '70's.

It seemed that every show I watched that you and David wrote elevated the quality of the show significantly. Both on existing shows like M*A*S*H, and new shows at the time like Cheers. That first season of Cheers shines like a beacon of how witty situation comedies can be.

For about a decade I followed your career and tried to catch everything you and your partner wrote, as I knew whatever you were working on was going to be just about the most clever and funniest thing on television.

I don't mean to gush, it's just that I've been a fan a long, long time and just came across your blog. I don't know why you're not currently running any comedy shows, or what you mean when you say your book is tentatively titled, "being thrown out of show business," but in my book you and your partner are two of the brightest comedy writers of the past three decades.

Just thought you'd like to know...

Now if only they'd reissue the 1985 Mary Tyler Moore Show on DVD (I remember it fondly), and the Almost Perfect show on DVD (I never watched it, not knowing it was written by you guys), that would be great!

Thanks for all of the years of witty, insightful and funny entertainment.

Miss Julie said...

Hi Mr. Levine: I'm screenwriter Tv in Spain. I'm fan of yours series and your blog. I can read english but I can't to write. ¿Podría escribirle al blog en español? Me encantaría poder hacerlo. Me fastidia tanto no poder hacer comentarios a sus interesantes artículos, ni poder comentarle mis dudas, ni como está por aquí el panorama televisivo. Tengo que decirle que usted es una de las máximas referencias para los guionistas en este pais. Un saludo afectuoso desde España.

Le aseguro que me estoy esforzando en mejorar mi escritura en inglés.

Anonymous said...

Regardless of all the good and bad that she's done on TV, what may be I think, the single greatest comedy perfomance in a sitcom that I ever saw, was Mary's no-dialogue part of the funeral scene in the "Chuckles Bites The Dust" episode of the MARY TYLER MOORE show. How many of us have tried to stifle a laugh when we knew it wasn't an appropriate time for laughter -- and how many of us couldn't help but laugh as we watched in sympathy while she contorted and fidgeted in her chair trying to do whatever it took, knowing that each silly childish detail the minister related about Chuckles was going to cause another response to well up?

Anonymous said...

I interviewed Mary some years back while she was doing her show. She was condescending...ice cold...aloof...not pleasant...not funny in the least. A few months later I was back on the CBS Studio Center lot to interview Ted Knight, one of the funniest sweetest guys you'll ever meet. He asked if I had interviewed Mary and when I said yes, he smiled and said "A piece of work, huh?" I always felt her role in ORDINARY PEOPLE wasn't a stretch.
And one final thing...lots of people have diabetes..lots of people have had tragic events occur in their lives ... and they have tougher lives then Ms. Moore. Sorry all your bubbles were burst.

Dante Kleinberg said...

Very funny story. It's great how people miss the little details sometimes, like the ENDING to the movie they're citing.

Anonymous said...

Ken, since "The A Team" was still going good at NBC at the time, maybe you could have convinced Mary to take a page out of "Rocky III" instead, and dressed her up with gold chains and a Mowhak. Would have been worth at least a point or two bump for at least one week during sweeps month to hear her running around yelling "I pitty the fool" and glaring at the camera.

Anonymous said...

Great story, and you're a gentleman for listing all of the reasons Mary might not have been Laura Petrie during the time you worked with her. Hey, she was adorable and brilliant earlier in her career, and it must have been tough to try to keep that up all those years.

Human beings are prickly people anyway. Especially "creative types"

Anonymous said...

I know the common belief is that "Chuckles" was the best MTM episode ever, maybe even the best TV episode ever, but I humbly disagree. Wasn't even the best MTM ever. Personal favorite was "Ted Baxter's Famous Broadcasters School". One thing I've said for years is, watching this show in reruns, Ted Knight was a comic hall of famer, in the same league with a Don Knotts.

Also, while I know the experience was bad for you, Ken. I remember liking the "Mary" show. John Astin is always a hoot, and I vaguely remember a dramatic scene with Katey Sagal singing accapella in the newsroom.

Unknown said...

Cosby's comeback failed? We ran four seasons, Mister, four GLORIOUS seasons of throwing out literally every script after the table read.


I call you out, Levine!

Oh, and the blog is still delightful.

Toby O'B said...

I always try to keep the finished product onscreen separate from the stories I hear about what happens backstage. Don't want to color the experience anymore than by what I'm experiencing as I watch it.

I'm guessing the two actors she wanted gone were the girl living next door and her mobster boyfriend? It seems to me now as I remember that they just suddenly disappeared after a few episodes.

My favorite memory of the show was the character of Ed LaSalle as played by John Astin. I suppose he was to be the Ted Baxter stand-in but this time with smarts. (At least more than Ted had.)

The one bit I remember still from that show was the cheery fellow who had killed the cable installer with a cable box for keeping him waiting.

I'm betting a lot of people in the audience could rally behind that as wish fulfillment!

Anonymous said...

I was genuinely moved by the comments posted by Miss Julie. Translated, it said “Could write to him to blog in Spanish? It would enchant to me to be able to do it. It annoys so much to me not to be able to comment out to its interesting articles, nor to be able to comment my doubts to him, nor as it is this way the televising panorama. I must say to him that you are one of the maximum references for the scriptwriters in this country. An affectionate greeting from Spain.
I assure to him that I am making an effort in improving my writing in English.”
How's that for a compliment?

Claude said...

You should get paid for writing these posts!

Mike Barer said...

To Mr Hollywood,
In my opinion, you don't have love the artist to love the art.

Miss Julie said...

(Para usuario anónimo)Agradecida y emocionada, solamente puedo decir... Gracias por la translation, pero sobra el último comentario.

Anonymous said...

It's always sad to hear these stories, but Mary herself is quite frank about her experience on "Mary" in her autobiography. I guess what strikes me most is how similar this coldness or hardness that developed in Mary is to what happened with Lucille Ball. Apparently, after Lucy had to go it alone, she was the most difficult and unpleasant person to be around. Mary is unique in TV. Nobody else like her. Well, when she's finally gone and sorely missed, I guess all the books will come out.

Anonymous said...

On an unrelated note, but maybe related to her personality, after all, you can't help but notice that on the 4 DVDs to-date of the MTM Show (the first four seasons), Mary has not cooperated with the project. No interviews, no commentary, nothing. What's up with that, I wonder? And when the cast was on Larry King promoting the first season some years ago (produced by Ed Asner's son and his partner), everybody was on the show except Mary. Hmmmm.

liz said...

I really enjoy just about everything you've ever been involved with Ken. I find your writing is light yet incredibly poignant and thorough, such a pleasure to follow you throughout your career. I love reading the Ted Knight stories, even though this was mostly about Mary and her on and off camera personalities. Ted Knight was a brilliant comedic and dramatic performer, incredibly handsome and left us way too soon.