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‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ origin story illustrates social change since 1970

The concept that Moore and her husband pitched to CBS presented the main character, Mary Richards, as a 30-something divorcée. The network changed that.

Mary Tyler Moore tossing her tam in the air in 2002, replicating the action shown during the opening credits of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," at the unveiling of the eight-foot bronze sculpture depicting the toss.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

Like almost everyone else, apparently, I loved the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” I moved to Minneapolis in late 1977, just after the show’s last season and way before the statue of “Mary Richards” went up on the Nicollet Mall. My condolences to her family and all who loved Ms. Moore.

One fact about the show’s origin strikes me as a pretty good marker of social history and how much has changed since the show premiered in 1970. (Several of the obits have made reference to this.) The concept that Moore and her then-husband, Grant Tinker, pitched to CBS presented the main character, Mary Richards, as a 30-something woman who had moved to Minneapolis to get a fresh start after her recent divorce.

There had never been a divorced main character in a TV show and in many quarters of the culture it still seemed important to portray divorce as something of a sin, or just to avoid discussing it. So the network bought the show but changed the backstory so that Mary Richards had never been married and, in fact, had moved to the big city (from a southern Minnesota town called Roseburg, that I kinda think was supposed to be Rochester) because after a long romance she had concluded that her boyfriend was never going to marry her. (Or, as represented in the pilot, he had broken up with her. This is why the show’s opening song starts with the lyrical question: “How Will You Make It On Your Own?”)

I’m getting so old that 1970 doesn’t seem like ancient history to me. I assume that to younger folks, the idea that in 1970 a TV network thought a divorced young woman was a little too scandalous to build a show around sounds pretty strange.

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The New York Times obit dealt with the issue thus, adding another wrinkle about the horrible possibility that viewers would think Mary Richards was the continuation of the Laura Petrie character from “The Dick Van Dyke Show:”

The [CBS] executives’ [to whom Moore and her then-husband — notably, her second husband, Grant Tinker, whom she later divorced, pitched the idea for the show] only reservation concerned the subject of divorce, which was still forbidden on network television. Some even feared that viewers would assume that Laura Petrie, from “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” had divorced Rob, which was unthinkable. A solution was reached: Ms. Moore would be newly single, but not divorced, having recently broken up with a fiancé.