Former Entertainment Weekly writer Jennifer Keishin Armstrong has a new book–Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted–detailing the creation of the classic TV series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The show, which originally ran from 1970 to 1977, is still front and center in many people’s minds. In this year alone, it was ranked fourth in EW’s top shows of all time, and the Writers Guild of America named it #6 in its 101 Best Written TV Series List. To make the release of the book, she agreed to an email interview.
Once you have enjoyed the interview, be sure to visit the publisher’s site for a preview read and for links to a variety of ways to buy the book. It is a great read–and I cannot wait to see what she does examining Seinfeld (her next book which she mentions briefly in the interview).
Tim O’Shea: Consider how you viewed the cast and crew before writing the book and then after, was there any particular actor or crew member that you came out of the process for a greater appreciation of them?
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong: Almost all of them, really! I loved the women who wrote for the show, and hearing their life stories gave me a broader appreciation of not just their work on the show as much as what they had to do to hack it in such a male-dominated world at a time when women’s lib was just starting to make inroads. And Valerie Harper, who’d always been a role model to me, was even better in person — and it was clear to me how much her motherly instincts helped glue the backstage family together.
How did you fill the gaps (given how much you interviewed the folks involved yourself) with someone like Ted Knight?
I talked with everyone about Ted, and also read lots of interviews with him. In the case of others, like CBS casting executive Ethel Winant, I talked to surviving relatives as well.
A real appeal to the book for me was how you conveyed so much information about the actors, for example, that is the most information I have ever read about Georgia Engel. Was that a goal of yours in the book, to shine a light on the people that may have not been noticed as much in the show’s heyday?
I love Georgia so much! She was a wonderful interview. A lot of it simply came from following my own curiosity — in her case, I very much wanted to know how much she was like her character, because Georgette is so distinctive. She was the first to admit that they’re all a lot like their characters. Though I definitely think she’s smarter than Georgette, the innocence is there. So is that voice!
I had forgotten about the spinoff series, Phyllis, and loved that you included that in the book. Was Cloris Leachman reticent to discuss her shortcomings.
She discussed the show a little with me, though it’s hard to keep Cloris on track! Other details came from interviews she did at the time, her own book, and the recollections of those involved in the production, like Grant Tinker and the producers, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns.
Speaking of shortcomings, there’s a level of candor to the book that is insightful and refreshing. Have any of the actors taken issue with your account of things, or with the passage of time, are they less sensitive about events and their less-than-perfect characteristics?
Most of the discussions of shortcomings, as they were, came from the people involved! Most of them were pretty upfront — they’re so smart and good at what they do that they know when they fell short. And the little tiffs — Gavin and Cloris early on, director Jay Sandrich and Jim Brooks later — seem to be mostly funny stories to them now. Same goes for Cloris’s difficulties with, say, getting to the set on time or hitting her marks. She loved talking about that stuff, because she feels justified in her choices — she was a busy mom at the time, and she liked to work in a very improvisational way. The others speak fondly of her foibles because they love her and admire her talent, regardless of her working style. It’s sort-of the way a family can talk about their loved ones’ faults in an affectionate way.
In terms of researching the book, what was the holy grail, the hardest element to turn up information about? Was there any element that helped click all the pieces of the book together for you when you uncovered it?
Well, I can tell you my two favorite last-minute finds that for me really clicked the narrative together. One was finding a treasure trove of information about the feminist conference in Texas where Jim Brooks spoke on a panel with Gloria Steinem and felt a little slighted. It showed how the women’s movement didn’t exactly embrace The Mary Tyler Moore Show at the time, and Jim clearly felt upset about it still to this day, but he couldn’t remember many details. I found elaborate accounts of the entire thing, including a recording of Gloria Steinem’s opening remarks, in the Steinem archives at Smith College and was thrilled to make that scene into a real set piece.
The other find was Joe Rainone, the superfan who wrote to the show every week and eventually got to visit the set and attend the finale. To me, he tied the whole story together, showing how much the show meant to “regular” people and also demonstrating the generosity of the cast and producers. They could have ignored this guy or written him off as an obsessive nut, but they embraced him and his enthusiasm for their work, and in doing so, really made this guy’s life. He’s also a great storytelling with a fantastic memory.
This was a show that reflected the evolution of feminism and helped influence feminism (or its acceptance). As a person who has written about feminism for years, was there anything that really impressed you about the show’s impact in that regard that you discovered?
I was definitely intrigued by how much feminists didn’t embrace the show at the time — in looking at this phenomenon closely, I’ve realized this is pretty common for any groundbreaking show. Will & Grace went through the same thing with the gay community. The groups who are represented on shows like this tend to be extremely sensitive to the portrayal, and almost always take issue with either the stereotypes they still see or the fact that the representation is not progressive enough. You can understand, in retrospect, how feminists could object to such things as Mary calling her boss “Mr. Grant” when everyone else calls him “Lou.” But from 2013, you can also admire how progressive the show was without making Mary into a “perfect” feminist, which would’ve been kind-of boring.
It is a small passing detail, but do you recall seeing the Jack Parr moment where he harassed Goldie Hawn about her chest, or how did you unearth that anecdote?
I didn’t see it — that was referred to in newspaper clips at the time. Newspaper clips are such a treasure trove, which I guess is obvious — but the way they chronicle the passing, everyday stuff as it happens helps to understand the times so much.
Do you think in some sense Treva Silverman came to terms with the impact of walking away from the show (to move to Europe) in talking to you for the book. Or had she come to terms with that decision years ago?
I think she came to terms with it years ago, and really values her experience in Europe. I personally love that part of her story — it reflects how much she knew who she was and what she wanted from life, and acted on it.
How long did this book take to research?
Maybe a year, or a little more than that. Researching and writing were mashed together a lot.
Do you have a favorite season or episode from the series?
I love love love the season where Betty White, Georgia Engel, Valerie Harper, and Cloris Leachman are ALL on the show together, before Val and Cloris go off to their spinoffs. They’re all just on fire then. I tell anyone who will listen to watch the first episode that Betty appears in, The Lars Affair. Not that any of us wonder why the woman is famous, but this will remind you and then some. She’s transcendent, and her confrontation with Cloris’s character is legendary.
Any interest in doing another book on another series–or was this a unique project for you that cannot be revisited (due to the show’s cultural significance and its period)?
I’m working on Seinfeld right now!
How interesting was it for you to examine MTM at the ground floor, before Tinker became the major powerhouse of TV content?
I don’t think I totally realized, or thought about, that MTM really just started to make this one show. The connection was always obvious, but I guess I always assumed they’d planned to churn out lots of shows. It’s fun to see how they so carefully built this one show — of course they did, it was for Mary! — but then continued that ethic through everything they did afterwards.