Career women lost a role model when 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' ended 17 years ago

By Jessica Shaw
February 04, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST
  • TV Show

Timing might be everything in a sitcom, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s final bow was not quite on cue. ”I don’t think it came at the right time for the show and most of the actors, but it was certainly the right time for the writers,” says Moore. Though the show still commanded a big audience after debuting on CBS in 1970, writers James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, and Ed. Weinberger were setting out to make movies. And so, on Feb. 4, 1977, the cast taped the final episode. ”I sort of felt like I was being evicted from my home,” says Moore, 56.

Using the graceful, subtle humor that earned the series 27 Emmys, ”The Last Show” story line centered on the station manager’s decision to fire Lou (Ed Asner), Murray (Gavin MacLeod), Sue Ann (Betty White), and Mary while keeping the fatuous Ted (Ted Knight) as the anchor. Old friends Rhoda (Valerie Harper) and Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) stood by Mary’s side when she returned home with her pink slip. In her final, tear-jerking speech, Mary thanked the clan for being a family while supporting her commitment to life as a career woman.

With those words, the writers summed up the movement that had begun in 1970 when Moore, who’d played the domesticated Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, became a liberated, single career woman, quietly battling for equal treatment in the workplace. ”She was a woman who stood up for herself whenever she spotted any inequity, but who wasn’t going to push it to the edge,” says Moore. ”She made little squeaks and noises and was among the first to do so.”

Those sounds reverberated, eventually leading to such characters as Murphy Brown (who, Moore says, is ”the female Lou Grant”) and Roseanne Conner. MTM also spawned spin-offs Rhoda, Phyllis, and Lou Grant. MacLeod captained the Love Boat, and Knight starred in Too Close for Comfort before passing away in 1986. Moore recently completed an exercise video and is at work on her autobiography.

More than two decades after MTM made it cool to stay home and watch TV on Saturday night, the series is experiencing a popularity rebirth. Nick at Nite runs back-to-back episodes every weeknight, and the opening sequence has inspired imitators from RuPaul, in his video ”Supermodel,” to Oprah, who tossed her hat in the air on a recent show. Even in TV, true class has a timeless quality that can overcome even the widest of bell-bottoms.