LA's Women Behind 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show'
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly, cofounded SexyFeminist.com, and now writes for several publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Fast Company, and New York's Vulture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, from sister company Simon & Schuster, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, tells the behind-the-scenes story of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. For more information on Armstrong, please visit: jenniferkarmstrong.com/
Los Angeles serves as home to most of the world's former TV writers, but only a handful of them made real history. Among those vaunted few are the pioneering women who worked on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the classic '70s sitcom that broke ground by featuring an independent, working woman — and by employing far more female writers than any show before it. Author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong interviewed several of them for her book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. Here, she shares some backstage knowledge about these storied LA denizens.
Charlotte Brown couldn't believe her luck when her dentist told her that a fellow patient was one James L. Brooks, creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Brown, an advertising copywriter, loved the show, which was now in its third season, and she desperately wanted to make the jump to sitcom writing. She put together a package of her best material, along with a spec script for the show, which the dentist agreed to pass onto Brooks. Months later, Brooks called to apologize — he still hadn't had time to look at her stuff — but she could come to rehearsals and watch from the bleachers if she wanted to. She showed up time after time, until finally Brooks read her script and gave her the verdict: it was awful. But, he added, she had a good ear for dialogue, so he gave her scripts to study. Eventually she'd sell Brooks and Burns on one of her ideas, launching her career writing for Mary Tyler Moore, then Bob Newhart and Rhoda, where she rose to become the first female showrunner on a sitcom. She retired from the TV business after executive-producing the 1995 Kirk Cameron vehicle Kirk.
Mimi Kirk, a young widow with four children, got the job as Mary Tyler Moore's assistant thanks to one key qualification: the statuesque brunette looked exactly like Moore and could serve as her stand-in. However, she soon made a key contribution to the show beyond standing in for Moore and answering the star's mail. Valerie Harper, who played Moore's sidekick, Rhoda, admired Kirk's gypsy-inspired style—flowy tops, oversized earrings and headscarves. As Harper's character evolved, she began to adopt Kirk's artsy wardrobe, eventually hiring Kirk as her own assistant and fashion consultant. Kirk's innovative style, namely the colorful headscarf, became Rhoda's signature. Kirk, who was always agitating for healthier food on the set, now works as a raw food expert, and has written two books, Live Raw and Live Raw Around the World.
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Gail Parent and her writing partner, Kenny Solms, had been paying their dues on the staff of The Carol Burnett Show when they decided to try their hand at a Mary Tyler Moore Show script. The two soon wrote a few episodes of Mary Tyler Moore, and Parent then wrote several scripts for its spinoff, Rhoda, on her own. Meanwhile, she published her first novel, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, which became a bestseller in 1973 by featuring a then-groundbreaking heroine who was single, overweight, actively sexual and suicidal. She went on to write scripts for The Golden Girls, then several screenplays, including 2004's Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. More recently, she co-wrote the 2010 book How to Raise Your Adult Children.
Treva Silverman grew up idolizing screwball comedy stars Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard, so she was thrilled when Brooks called to hire her to write for The Mary Tyler Moore Show before it even went on the air. After helping launch the show, she rose to the rank of executive story consultant, a particularly heady title for a woman in comedy at the time. She won an Emmy for her script work, as well as the first and only "super-Emmy," which crowned one ultimate victor from among all of that year's Emmy winners. She left the show mid-run to fulfill a lifelong dream of traveling through Europe. She returned to the States in 1977, just in time to attend the show's final taping. After that, she stayed in Los Angeles, writing several pilots and working as a script doctor on a number of movies, including Romancing the Stone. She continues to write and is working on a play.
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Armstrong will discuss Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted at Book Soup in West Hollywood at 7 p.m. on July 9 and at The Pop Hop Bookshop at 7 p.m. on July 11. For more information visit JenniferKArmstrong.com.
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