James L. Brooks Remembers Mary Tyler Moore: "She Was Brilliant. Nobody Ever Found the Thing She Couldn’t Do"

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The writer-producer and his partner Allan Burns created 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show,' which ran on CBS from 1970-77.

We’ve just had the women’s march, and you can’t not think of the qualities Mary had. They are the very things that we need so much right now. 

She had a dancer’s discipline and a dancer’s work ethic, which was extraordinary. I never recall there being a side issue — I really don’t, in seven years. It was always about the work, it was always about the script, it was always about the show. We [Brooks and Burns] always said, “Give the script a chance,” then we’d be the first ones to attack it. There’d be a rewrite midweek and sometimes an extensive one. But there were no alien issues. She trusted us and made all the work better and it was all free-flowing.

The spirit of a show is created by its star, and she was generous, charming and graceful. And funny. She had that exquisite timing — great student that she was — that she’d absorbed from The Dick Van Dyke Show, that sort of graduate school for her.  

The show came about because [Moore’s husband], Grant Tinker, was in charge of television at Fox, and he was starting a company with her, MTM, but he still had to fulfill his obligation to Fox. Allan Burns and I had created Room 222, and he thought we’d work well together. Then they [Tinker and Moore] both just supported us until we found the right idea. The first idea was a false start and the second idea became the show.

Its timing was extraordinary, because it was just at the point that the women’s revolution was starting, and some of our stories came from that. But the show was never a polemic; it was always about a very specific character, and it was important to us that we keep it from being a polemic, that we just do the character. That was the right thing to do at the time.

Mary came to represent what a decent-minded Midwestern woman’s life was like at that specific time in history. She resembled her character in her work ethic, intelligence, charm, goodness. She was more private than Mary [Richards]. But the thing they had in common was, they were both model citizens.

She was generous to other performers. They all got the spotlight because she didn’t need it in that way. She was the center of it all, but she was very generous — casually generous. She didn’t even have to think about it. That’s who she was. During the show, in the breaks, she would always have a dance instructor come over and give a dance workout to any women in the cast who wanted it.  

She had a garage apartment at the beach, a hideout that I took as my residence, and I remember when I walked in there, there was a ledge just below the ceiling and the ledge had a lot of champagne bottles and each one had a paper flower in it. It was a great insight into the way they were at that time [Tinker and Moore]. 

The show came to an end because we thought it was time. We were beginning the sixth year, and having a discussion, and they said, “Six years is good,” and I said “Seven.” Mary was ready. Everyone wanted to leave the show at the point when it was right, and it was very much a show of its time. 

The only notes she ever gave us were when she came to the office and asked for something — almost like Mary Richards would have gone into the boss’s office, [which] was so strange because we worked for her. She said, “Everyone seems to be saying their goodbyes within the story, and I’d like to say my goodbyes.” And then we wrote a speech for her.

People remember that as an enormously magical time in their lives. And I remember the wrap party as being singular [among] all the wrap parties I’ve been to since. I remember the high I felt off that wrap party: I couldn’t go home. So I checked into a hotel. I needed to get up and think and then go on with my life.

Most of us who worked on The Mary Tyler Moore Show had fallen in love with her on The Dick Van Dyke Show. You were in love with [her character], Laura Petrie. And nothing we saw afterward dissuaded us.

She was brilliant. Nobody ever found the thing she couldn't do. I don’t remember anyone ever, in the seven years, say anything but appreciation for Mary. It was the nature of her spirit and character that allowed everybody to do their best work. It was a magical atmosphere that owed a lot to her.