MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, Ed Asner, Mary Tyler Moore, 1970-1977
Credit: Everett Collection

On the one-year anniversary of Mary Tyler Moore’s death, we revisit an appreciation of the groundbreaking actress and feminist icon, courtesy of her Mary Tyler Moore Show costar Ed Asner. The tribute originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly last January.

Hats flew at half-mast on Jan. 25. When Mary Tyler Moore died at the age of 80 of cardiopulmonary arrest in Greenwich, Connecticut, the culture mourned the loss of one of the most vital and vivacious voices in TV history. Moore fetched two Emmys in the 1960s as charming housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and earned an Oscar nomination as an icy mother in 1980’s Ordinary People. But it was in her seven-season turn (1970-77) as spunky TV producer Mary Richards on CBS’ The Mary Tyler Moore Show that Moore burned brightest, winning four Emmys as a single woman who defied traditional archetypes, charted her own course in the workforce, and became a feminist icon. Along the way, Mary Richards formed an unlikely bond with her gruff boss, Lou Grant (Ed Asner). They became a punchline-perfect duo, and their friendship evolved into the show’s emotional center. If she could turn the world on with her smile, he could turn it right back off with his scowl. Here, Asner, 87, who nabbed five Emmys for that role, remembers the woman who changed the game not only for him—but for audiences everywhere.

During the casting process for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Asner was recommended to series creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns by Grant Tinker, Moore’s then-husband and cofounder of MTM Enterprises, and CBS casting exec Ethel Winant, who was convinced that the dramatic actor could pull off comedy. After an audition with the producers, Asner was brought back to read opposite Moore.

America’s sweetheart—that was my first impression. Automatically, her beauty took hold. She was the goddess, and I hoped that the little lady—or the big lady, I should say—would overlook my faults.

I read as I thought they wanted to hear me read, and they laughed and said the appropriate “Thank you, we’ll be in touch.” From what I heard, after I left, Mary turned to them and, with a tremendously screwed-up face, said, “Are you sure?” I don’t blame her for asking the question that way, because it was a meshuggeneh reading. The producers then said to her, “That’s your Lou Grant.”

I like to think the Mary-Lou relationship was special. Lou served as a guardian for her throughout the history of the show and sometimes pushed her forward when she wasn’t ready to be pushed.

A few days before the pilot was filmed, Moore & Co. performed a test version of the show in front of a live audience. It did not go well.

The audience did not laugh to any degree. Mary was in horrendous tears. Supposedly, Grant said to the producers, “Fix it.”

At the Friday filming, the producers said, “Just play the hell out of it.” We went out there and we kicked the s— out of it. I got to the “You know what? You’ve got spunk” scene, and I had a devilish grin on my face. And her character basked in that credit I was giving her. I immediately turned on her and said, “I hate spunk.”

We just felt that the whole scene was a great jumping-off place for the show. It flew like the wind and collected all kinds of huzzahs. We marveled at how the early prognostications were full of s—. I felt, at that moment, that I could’ve taken those 300 people [in the audience] and marched them off a cliff—they were totally in my power. From that point on, the show just floated on clouds.

In the first two seasons, Mary Richards was Lou Grant’s eager young protégée, not looking to rock the boat. But in the third season, in 1972, she became aware of (and pushed back against) gender inequality in the workplace. In the season 3 premiere, Mary discovers that her predecessor, a man, earned $50 more per week. When she challenges Lou on this, he unapologetically notes that men need to make more money because they have families to support. Mary responds with a logical, eloquent argument for equal pay that rings relevant today. From that time forward, Mary evolved into a more vocal advocate for herself and, by extension, for all working women. Just as important, Lou—an old-school man’s man—often found himself swayed by her positions, signaling to men that giving women power didn’t make men weaker. All of this was cloaked in the show’s humor and charm.

The producers saw [Moore’s] pluses and realized that they were a bonanza to draw from—both her wit and her intelligence and her comic timing—to push [Lou’s] envelope as far as it could be pushed. I was surprised to hear that we were breaking ground and, later on, those saying it was revolutionary. I couldn’t believe that everybody tended to think of this as such a big deal. Women certainly regarded it that way. I never saw any reaction [from Moore] except a pleased-as-punch smile. She didn’t comment on it, nobody else did. I didn’t comment on it either. “If that’s what they think, fine, we’ll forge ahead and amass more sympathetic votes.” Rights advancements come about many times by quietly instituting it rather than blazing it across the front page.

Moore kicked down a door for comedic actresses that had been open only a crack: the idea that women could be beautiful, smart, and funny. Moore kept her humor character-based rather than clownish. Although, in one famous episode, a clown becomes Mary Richards’ undoing.

When Chuckles the Clown bites the dust, Mary tries to ride herd on all of us to be properly mournful and observant, and then the minister gives his sermon. Each time he mentions something—”A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants”—Mary breaks up giggling, and the rest of us all look at her like, “Are you nuts? It’s terrible what you’re doing!” She ends the scene crying. That’s what [Moore] could do: Mary could laugh and cry at the same time, and that was a special gift that truly delineated her.

There wasn’t a person she was unkind to in her glory days. There wasn’t an animal that she didn’t love. I can’t say I ever take the measure of most stars of TV shows, but she was quite willing to stay in the background and give the star turn to whoever had that moment in the show, be it a permanent member of the cast or the guest. She was willing to bask in their reflected light.

In the years after the show went off the air and Asner went on to star on Lou Grant, Asner and Moore drifted, but his admiration for her, he says, never wavered.

Mary gave us brilliant moments for seven years. She was one of the greats. She was unique in terms of beauty and wit—a nonpareil. I call the show “seven years of the yellow brick road,” and I certainly was given a great gift. I think the others in the show felt the same way. There would be no show without Mary Tyler Moore. She was the show, and we were damn grateful she was there. Thank God fortune dealt us that hand.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show
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