Growing up in Minnesota, Lea Thompson worshiped Mary Tyler Moore. In 1993, Thompson costarred in the Emmy-winning TV movie Stolen Babies with Mary Tyler Moore. Now Thompson headlines NBC’s Caroline in the City, a single-gal sitcom that has drawn favorable comparisons to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And Caroline is beating the pants off CBS’ New York News, the new vehicle for — that’s right — Mary Tyler Moore.
”Mary will probably be really mad if she hears us say we’re trying to be Mary Tyler Moore,” says Thompson, 34. ”But every show with a girl is always looking to be the Mary Tyler Moore of the ’90s.” Not that New York City cartoonist Caroline Duffy is a Mary Richards clone. ”She’s more puckish than Mary,” says James Burrows, who has directed both MTM and Caroline. Or, as Thompson puts it, ”I come off a lot more horny.”
Caroline‘s already pulling in MTM-size numbers. Snuggled between Seinfeld and ER in NBC’s mighty Thursday-night lineup, Caroline is the season’s highest-rated new show, ranking 5th (New York News is 84th). That’s quite a feat considering even Thompson admits the show has struggled to find its voice. ”We had a few misfires,” she says. ”We had to find out certain things Caroline shouldn’t do — like be really mean or ballbusting — because I looked uncomfortable doing them. I’m kind of the girl next door.”
Which is fine with Thompson, as long as she gets to be the funny girl next door. ”They’ve found a way to not just make me the straight man, which would be easy to do because the people around me are so funny,” says Thompson, referring to costars Eric Lutes (Caroline’s buffoonish boyfriend), Malcolm Gets (her snippy assistant), and Amy Pietz (her trampy neighbor). ”But some shows I’ll be like, ‘Gimme more jokes!”’
Having worked in films for more than a decade, Thompson initially feared the sitcom format: ”I don’t have a stand-up routine or a vast experience in joke telling.” So she flashed her other assets. ”I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can tell a joke, so I’d better wear a short skirt!”’
That’s not the only motivation behind Caroline’s high hemlines. ”After just having a baby, you’re so excited you have a body, you’re like, ‘I’m gonna show everybody!”’ says Thompson, mother of Madeline, 4, and Zoey, 1, with husband Howard Deutch (who directed her in Some Kind of Wonderful). ”After being fat and horrible and sexless for all those months, it’s like being let out of school.”
Thompson’s off-the-set wardrobe often draws attention too — not all of it favorable. She’s a tabloid staple as ”the queen of fashion mistakes,” she says, laughing. ”I probably deserve it. I don’t have Giorgio Armani on my speed dial. I’m just a workin’ ma.”
In fact, conspicuous consumption has never been her style. ”We were poor,” says Thompson of her Minneapolis childhood (she’s the youngest of five kids). But her mother, a painter, ”raised us to think we were artists, so it was okay.” (Her dad died earlier this year.)