How is the Mary Tyler Moore Cast Still So Damn Popular?

Mary Tyler Moore cast on a sofa

Though most women of a certain age in Hollywood can’t catch a break, the women who starred on The Mary Tyler Moore Show have proven exceptional even as they age. The news just came out that the cast will be reuinted for an episode of Hot in Cleveland

I have four ideas on why TV jut can’t get enough of the Mary Tyler Moore stars. 

When I started researching a book about the show (Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, which comes out in May), I realized it’s as relevant today as it was in the ’70s because the women who made it special remain relevant in their own right, even in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Georgia Engel gets steady work in guest spots and continues to surprise people with the combination of her breathy-innocent voice and tart line delivery. Cloris Leachman still chews the scenes regularly on Fox’s Raising Hope. Betty White is … everywhere. Moore herself has slowed down a bit recently, but collected a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild last year and did a cameo on White’s Hot in Cleveland. Valerie Harper has continued to work on TV (Drop Dead Diva) and the stage, and earlier this year put out an autobiography, just before her devastating announcement that she has inoperable brain cancer

Though the writers on Mary Tyler Moore have had trouble landing work as they get older, what on earth happened on that Mary Tyler Moore soundstage that every last woman who played a major female character on the show went on to a 40-year-plus career? Here, my best guesses at what’s in their magical recipe for success:

1. The women are impeccably professional and, contrary to Cloris’ reputation, smart in the ways that matter most. Mary and her husband, producer-executive Grant Tinker, owned the show under the auspices of their MTM Enterprises, and they did not suffer fools. They hired only people who upheld their work ethic, and they were either very lucky, or very good at intuiting this about people, or a little of both. Everyone on the show followed Moore’s lead and came prepared. Their long careers attest to the fact that they maintained this professionalism beyond this one show.

2. They are crazy talented. The only thing insane about this set was the amount of brilliance it contained. Sure, this was probably at least partly luck—every great show stumbles upon a magical combination of actors that can’t be duplicated. This show, however, got a big assist from CBS’ executive in charge of casting, Ethel Winant. She handpicked the entire cast because, as the first female TV executive of her magnitude ever, she fell in love with this show about an independent woman. The lady knew her stuff, and fought for her picks, particularly Harper and Leachman, as well as Ed Asner (who played boss Lou Grant) and Ted Knight (who played buffoonish newscaster Ted Baxter). True talent sometimes actually wins in Hollywood, and these women are all cases in point.

3. They’re genuinely hardworking. And this is above and beyond being just professional, and being just good at their jobs. They all have the best of intentions and care about other human beings. This makes people want to ask them back to work, and it also translates to the fans who love them and root for them.

4. They were heroes to millions of independent women. There’s something to be said for being groundbreaking: Those of us who watched the show will never forget what these women symbolized to us, no matter who else they play. 


Read more from this Women of the Certain Age guest blog series! 

by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
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