Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

After All (1970)

Sep 19, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


Mary Richards on her resentment of the station manager “Trotting in groups of people and saying, ‘This is our woman executive.”


   In 1967, Mary Tyler Moore starred in the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie. Her television series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, could similarly have had the title Thoroughly Modern Mary, as its eponymous heroine threw off the shackles that kept 1970s women imprisoned in a shag-carpeted cage.

    America first became enamored of Mary when she starred as Laura Petrie in 1961 in The Dick Van Dyke Show. The show’s director, Carl Reiner, based the relationship between Laura and her husband, Rob, on his own marriage to Estelle, famous for her role as the lady who remarked, “I’ll have what she is having,” in the film, When Harry Met Sally. Before the advent of Laura, television housewives were of the ilk of Lucille Ball, frantic Ricky would discover her latest shenanigans. In one episode, he put her over his knee to spank some sense into her. Laura forsook aproned skirt for Capri pants, black pumps transformed to flats. On a twist from yesteryear moms, the Petrie’s shared sexual sparks. Nevertheless, as per the era’s mores, they slept in separate beds. They were equal partners although he brought home the bacon.

     In the time before Mary Tyler Moore first stepped foot into the frosted glass-door threshold of the WJM-TV Minneapolis newsroom, sitcoms could have been categorized as unreality TV. To counterbalance the horror of the nightly news-television sit-coms were paeons to escapism: a stay-at-home witch, (Bewitched), and a stay-at-home genie, (I Dream of Jeannie).   

     BY 1970, Mary was ripe for her own television series, and she and her husband, TV executive Grant Tinker, pitched The Mary Tyler Moore Show to CBS for which she received a multimillion-dollar contract. Together they founded the production company, MTM Enterprises, whose mewing kitten logo served as a spoof on the roaring MGM lion. The star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show portrayed one of the first single women in the role of a lead character. Before Carrie Bradshaw was a glean in 1998s Sex and the City, Mary Richards was a single, thirty-something lady whose Holy Grail was a career rather than matrimony. Initially, Mary was to be a divorcée; however, the studio scrapped the idea as that marital status equated to the scarlet letter D. As a network executive grumbled, “American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a series’ lead any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with moustaches and people who live in New York.” Another reason against making Mary the possessor of an-ex was the concern that she was so identified as Laura audiences would think she had dumped Rob. 

      As an associate producer, Mary chipped away at workplace glass ceilings. During her job interview her boss, Lou Grant, flat-out informed Mary that he had planned to hire a man. He asked her non-occupation-related questions to which Mary countered, “It does seem that you’ve been asking a lot of very personal questions that don’t have a thing to do with my qualifications for this job.” Similarly, when Lou inquired why she wasn’t married at her age, Mary answered she had sixty-five reasons, a tongue-in-cheek reference to how many words she could type per hour. Upon finding out that she made $50.00 a week less than her male predecessor, Mary asked for an explanation. Lou’s response, “Because he was a man.” Toward the end of the episode, Mary’s ex-boyfriend, Bill, showed up for a visit, at which time she made it clear she was not interested in resuming their relationship, thus rejecting the chance to be a doctor’s wife. His parting words were, “Take care of yourself.” She already had.

     Audiences were astounded that the program dealt with erstwhile taboo subjects such as sex and the single woman. As Ms. Richards stated, “I’ve been around. Well, all right, I might not have been around. But I’ve been nearby.” In one scene, she went out on a date and returned home the next morning in the same tell-tale dress. Similarly, there was the evening Mary’s parents paid her a visit. When her mother turned to leave, she called out, “Don’t forget to take your pill!” Father and daughter answered in unison, “I won’t!”  Gone was the mindset that single girls had to save themselves for marriage in fear that if they put out for free men would not buy the cow. The Mary Tyler Moore Show provided inspiration for a generation of women who felt they now had an option other than old maid. Ms. Moore threw the gauntlet of career aspirations much as women threw bridal bouquets. When the series ended in 1977, it did not conclude in Disney princess fashion: Mary did not marry.

   Mary Tyler Moore, the star of two iconic television shows, was born in 1936 in Brooklyn, into a Roman Catholic family. The Moores relocated to California when her father accepted a position as a manager with the Southern California Gas Company. In her 2009 memoir, Growing Up Again, Mary described the travails of alcoholism. She wrote, “When one’s mother is an alcoholic and, despite a child’s pleading with her to stop, she continues, you may read that as a cold, selfish act on her part.” A further source of pain was her father “was bereft of the ability to express his love for me.” To self-medicate, Mary turned to the bottle to prevent “the hard edges of life to touch me.”

    Fresh out of high school, Mary appeared in a series of commercials for Hotpoint Appliances as Happy Hotpoint where she performed as an elf clad in a body stocking. At age eighteen, she married Richard “Dick” Meeker and, a year later, had her only child, Richard, (Richie.) Her pregnancy ended her stint as Happy Hotpoint. Her next act was as a sexy-sounding secretary; seen rather than heard, her character existed in sexy close-ups of her mouth and lengthy legs. Her marriage collapsed after seven years, and, busy with The Dick Van Dyke show, Mary felt that she was an absentee mother when Richie needed her most. At age fifteen, Ritchie chose to live with his father in Fresno, California where he slipped into drug addiction. Mary remembered, “It was not until a frantic, sobbing Ritchie called home, begging sanctuary from a cocaine dealer who had threatened to kill him over unpaid debts, that I realized the extent of the tangle that was now my son’s life.” Ritchie ended up dying from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. (His parents claimed it was not an accident rather than suicide.) Scattering Ritchie’s ashes into a stream of rushing water, the grieving mother screamed at the sky, “You take care of him!” Her marriage to ad agency executive, Grant Tinker, later head of NBC, also ended in divorce. Her younger sister, Elizabeth, died from a painkiller and alcohol overdose. Her brother, John, suffering from terminal kidney cancer, recruited his sister to end his life by overdosing on painkillers. The assisted suicide attempt failed, and he passed away three months later. In a nod to the Hemingway title, the sun also rose when Mary received treatment for her alcoholism at the Betty Ford Clinic. Further contentment arrived with her third husband, cardiologist Robert Levine, to whom she dedicated her 1996 autobiography, After All, “For Robert, who turned on the light.” The dedication was an allusion to Mary Richard’s final episode when she turned the newsroom lights off.

    At the end of the opening credits, Mary tossed her woolen Tam -O-Shanter into the air as if to say the sky is the limit, a gesture of unbridled joy. In 2002, a statue of Mary throwing her hat appeared in downtown Minneapolis. What is less tangible is the words from the show’s theme song that hovers over Mary’s likeness, “You’re gonna make it after all.”