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HOT IN CLEVELAND, l-r: Cloris Leachman, Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper, Betty White, Georgia Engel
Credit: TV Land/courtesy Everett Collection; Maarten de Boer/Getty Images Portrait)

Mary Tyler Moore, who died Wednesday at age 80, appeared in two episodes of TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland. Here, executive producer Todd Milliner gives a behind-the-scenes account of those episodes, one a Mary Tyler Moore Show reunion, which turned out to be her final acting appearance.

Out of 129 episodes of Hot in Cleveland, I don’t think I looked forward to any as much as the two we had with Mary Tyler Moore.

During the first one, in which Betty White’s Elka ended up in jail for hiding stolen property and Mary played a fellow inmate, I had to summon the courage to walk downstairs and say hello before the table read. I figured she’d just say hi, say get the hell out of here, and then chuck a hat at me. I couldn’t have been more wrong. She invited me into the dressing room where she was reading a paper and likely having a nice breakfast with her husband (and I was undeniably screwing that morning up). She was so kind. We sat together and had as normal a conversation as I could in the moment, and she kept me in there for a half hour — one of the best half hours of my life.

Both episodes (2011’s “Free Elka” and 2013’s “Love Is All Around“) were series creator and showrunner Suzanne Martin’s idea. And I never really thought about it until after the show wrapped, but Suzanne Martin has a lot of Mary Tyler Moore qualities… I bet if Suzanne was older she would have developed shows for her.

Suzanne spearheaded the reunion episode, which brought together all of the ladies from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, after she heard Valerie Harper was ill. We had always wanted Mary back on the show because we had such a blast the first time, but this lit a fire, and we set out to get it done. Georgia Engel was already recurring, and Betty was thrilled with the idea. The reunion, of course, wouldn’t have been complete without Cloris Leachman, who said yes. The episode came together very quickly. All of the ladies made themselves available even if they weren’t. It was very important.

Suzanne created the idea to have a bowling team reunite, and it was magical. It was like no time had passed. I’m not sure I had ever seen so many requests to be in the audience or on the floor for any episode to date. We had to have a press conference to handle all the press requests, which TV Land’s Vanessa Reyes orchestrated beautifully. It felt like we were at the Final Four, and as they took questions, we felt like a small part of sitcom history.

When it came time for the taping, we blocked the set from the audience so they couldn’t see her sitting at the table. When we removed it, the standing ovation and the roar of the crowd was overwhelming. It went on forever, and she started to tear up. The episode was called “Love Is All Around,” and it really, really was that night.

Mary didn’t really give notes on the character or the scene in the restaurant. The most significant memory I have of the night was watching her watch her friends. She seemed to get a little lost in the moment — in a great way. The reunion was very important to her. She’d be watching the other ladies perform and then say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got lines here.” And we’d all laugh.

While she may have been caught up watching her friends, we couldn’t take our eyes off her. Her genius was always evident onscreen, but seeing it happen reminded everyone why they get into this work.

We certainly wanted to have her back. We wanted to have all of them back. We just ran out of episodes.

That night was the most special tape night of my career. It’s one of those times you get to be a fan and you forget about the work for a while… and you start hoping you have friends who you’re just as excited to see 35 years after first meeting them as Mary was that night.

—As told to Gerrad Hall

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