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Mary Tyler Moore still has old spunk

Monday, May 13, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It was as if Mary Richards had yanked open one of WJM's double doors, hung up her jacket on the coat tree in the corner and tucked her purse into her desk drawer. "Hello," she said over the phone, with the familiar cheery lilt in her voice. "Please call me Mary."

Mary Tyler Moore, the actress who played the spunky single girl three decades ago, was on the line to promote "The Mary Tyler Moore Reunion," airing at 10 tonight on its old home of CBS. In a way, she will be competing with herself because she also will pop up on an ABC prime-time special, "TV Guide's 50 Best Shows of All Time," a list topped by "Seinfeld."

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" is No. 11 and "The Dick Van Dyke Show," 13. "I think it's a bum rap," she says, with more amusement than animus. She would rate her 1970s series No. 1, and so would many TV critics. "You have to forgive me, but I'm fresh off the experience of having sat down and reminisced with my dearest friends, so it's high in my heart."

But the 65-year-old actress acknowledges that it's not for her to decide the rankings. "As long as people respect the show -- and they sure seem to -- and respect all the actors who contributed, that's plenty fine with me."

It was just two weeks after Carol Burnett's retrospective scored sky-high ratings that CBS came calling. Moore's assistant answered with the standard, "Let me just see if she's available" and asked if she could take a call from CBS President Les Moonves, "which struck me as the most needless question of the day."

Moore did a reunion show a decade ago and wanted this to be different.

"I wanted to make sure we didn't do that same written dialogue that seemed to be the style, where we sit around and say, 'Oh, gosh, I remember so well the day that you came in and we said,' and then you go to clip. I wanted it to be fresh and off the tops of our minds and emotions. ...

"These are real people reminiscing with real emotions about where we were at that time in our own heads and where we were as a family at work." The show was not available for preview, but Moore guesses it is about 60 percent to 65 percent reminiscence, soul searching and conversation, with clips (including outtakes) making up the balance.

In addition to Moore, participants will include Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Gavin MacLeod, Betty White, Cloris Leachman and Georgia Engel. The cast will pay tribute to Ted Knight, who died in 1986.

When the creators conceived of the anchorman, they pictured a character who would be inept, but also tall, dark, handsome and a love interest for Mary.

"But Ted Knight walked into the audition and just blew them away with his version of Ted Baxter. He had even gone out and bought himself a blazer and had a little patch sewn on the pocket, at a time in his life when he really couldn't afford to do such a thing," Moore says.

"And he wanted it so desperately and he was so right, that they just decided to go with that." The same thing happened with news writer Murray Slaughter, who was supposed to be Mary's jealous, bickering nemesis. "Gavin was just so filled with affection and love and longing," that Murray turned into Mary's biggest admirer.

During the course of its seven-year run, the show earned 29 Emmys for its stars, directors, writers, editors and the series itself. "Chuckles Bites the Dust," an episode hailed as perhaps television's best, is still Moore's favorite. It was a tour de force for her.

"And I relished it. I was having a great time with that, although I was a little nervous that I would not be able to keep a straight face during my castigations in the first half of the show about having respect for the dead."

The taboo topic had appealed to Moore and scared her, too. "I don't think there had ever been that much giggling about the death of a, if not beloved, cast member, certainly one who was known and recognized."

Moore's second favorite episode is "Put on a Happy Face," in which Mary gets a cold, sprains her ankle, develops a "hair bump," loses a false eyelash and looks uncharacteristically unkempt. "I just loved it. Every actress loves to get really ugly, unless you're a 19-year-old just coming up, and then you don't like it so much."

In her day, Mary Richards was as much of a baby boomer role model as the women on "Friends" are to today's younger viewers. So, what does Moore think of TV singles today?

"I'm not crazy about the level of comedy writing on television today. I don't really know what it's about but there does seem to be an awful lot of quick laughs, easy targets, a refusal to consider any physical or emotional need other than sex, which is fine but I'm sort of bored with that as a form of entertainment in a sitcom.

"And I hate that term, by the way. It's interesting I use it in reference to these shows. I always resisted, I always said, don't call our show a sitcom. It's a situation comedy and deserving of the full use of the word."

The MTM reunion comes as television is awash in nostalgia.

"I think the general audience just needed to be reminded of the unmined -- because of the time frame -- wealth of material that was performed for the audience over the years, by all kinds of shows, not just comedy shows but some wonderful dramatic episodes, too. And I think it is true that, as a result of the turmoil that's going on now in the world, we are open to having our hearts touched and being appreciative of a slower, kinder pace."

Moore is most generous with crediting the writers with the success and staying power of the show, which typically placed among the top 10 Nielsen hits each year.

"They were not trying to make a point. They were not trying to get someone elected. They were not trying to reflect exactly what was going on in our culture or its changes; they were just trying to write about human emotions and relationships. What's it like to be jealous of your best friend, little things that had not really been examined on television before, but are so common."

Unlike some of her more devoted fans who watch the show in reruns or on tape and can recall with clarity titles, dialogue and specific scenarios, Moore is a more casual viewer. If, in the middle of the night, she is stricken with a rare bout of insomnia, she turns on the TV and finds the fictional world of WJM-TV or the one inhabited by Rob and Laura Petrie.

"I'll be sitting there looking at the show and feeling very comfortable and familiar with it, and then it occurs to me, I have no idea where they're going with this plot. Especially with 'The Dick Van Dyke Show.' How is this darling couple going to work out this problem? It's a funny feeling, indeed."

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