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I started in this business when I was 3. From the beginning, I was co-starring or headlining with the major male and female acts of the day, and all of them treated me wonderfully and respected me and my talent. I believe because of how I began, I always walked into a job or an audition assured of my talent and expected to be treated like a lady and an equal.
With one exception, I always was.
That one exception taught me what was happening to other women in the business. It occurred when I was about to wrap filming on the 1954 musical Top Banana. The producer of the film came up to me after I’d run through the song called “I Fought Every Step of the Way,” which had boxing references, and said that he could show me a few positions. He wasn’t referring to boxing.
I laughed it off, but he said he was serious and that the picture could be mine. Well, in front of everyone onstage, I said, “You son of a bitch, you couldn’t get it up if a flag went by.” Needless to say, that didn’t go over well with him, and all my musical numbers were cut from the film. I had no idea that his reaction to my refusal would be so bad.
I realized then that the rumors of the casting couch weren’t jokes and why some actresses were getting breaks and why others, sometimes way more talented, weren’t.
Nothing like that ever happened again — maybe because of how self-assured I was or because of how I played things off with my comedy. Certainly it never happened on the set of The Dick Van Dyke Show, but there was some friction that developed that does speak to the perception of women and what is expected of them in Hollywood.
I’d been told when I was hired that the focus was going to be on the writers room, where my character, Sally Rogers, was a television writer, and I would be co-starring with Dick [Van Dyke]. As time went on, I realized that the focus was actually on the home life and on his TV wife, Mary Tyler Moore. I didn’t like that. I was disappointed. I wanted to work more. The situation was made more difficult because Mary was younger and prettier than me and, I’ll admit it, I was jealous of all the attention she was getting.
Carl Reiner, the creator of the show and whose life it was based on, says in the November documentary about my showbiz career, Wait for Your Laugh, that we both had great legs, but “they” wanted to look at her legs. I’m not sure who “they” were. Men in our audience? Women in our audience? Studio execs? Show producers? Advertisers? Whoever it was, I didn’t fit their bill.
Sally was a groundbreaking character in part because it wasn’t expected that a woman would be equal to men in a professional setting and make the same salary. At the same time, the “ideal woman” was still whichever one was younger and prettier.
I find it interesting that so much of the talk today about our show isn’t about either of our legs, but rather what a trailblazing character Sally was. There are so many people, especially writers and comediennes, who were inspired by her. She has had a tremendous impact and even paved the way for the characters in That Girl and Mary’s next series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
I’m always asked if I knew the impact Sally would have, and honestly, I didn’t. I just did it. I didn’t spend time thinking about the fact that Mary Tyler Moore was playing a character who stayed at home and waited for her husband while I was at the office working with him.
I’m not really sure if things have gotten better or worse. I’m not on a set every day. On the one hand, now there are more women directors, producers and studio execs, and I think that is wonderful. On the other hand, there’s a new “casting couch” story coming out every day.
I guess it’s improving in that they’re finally talking about it and standing up and saying, “No more,” much like I did many years ago.
This story first appeared in the 2017 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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