Wednesday 30 December 2015

How To Become Laura Petrie

She came into our homes when she was 24 and 54 years later, she’s still there. Albeit in reruns. And what reruns they are.

Mary Tyler Moore had the tremendous fortune to appear in two situation comedies that are still highly venerated as among the best in television history. Her role as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show was ground-breaking. She wasn’t the rolling-eyes-at-the-husband, baking-in-the-kitchen housewife and mother that you saw on just about every other sitcom. She was more like a friend and partner to Van Dyke’s Rob than the standard issue cliché of “the little woman.” The ‘50s were over. And her show several years later featured a wonderful supporting cast anchored by Moore as “an independent woman,” not defined by her job or any man.

Well, let’s back up a minute. Moore actually came into our homes a little bit earlier, though few people knew it at the time. Let’s pass on two newspaper columns published the first season the Van Dyke show was on the air. The first is from the Associated Press of November 22, 1961.
TV Actress Started Career As Unknown Telephone Girl

AP TV-Radio Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Richard Diamond, one of TV's earlier private eyes, was the first of the convertible-driving, woman-chasing, villain-fighting murder-solvers to use a car telephone.
The novel gimmick of the series (which never did very well) is largely responsible for the current career of Mary Tyler Moore, who plays the young wife in CBS' "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
As a sort of sub-gimmick, the producers added the role of "Sam," the telephone operator, to the show. When our hero checked his answering service, it was "Sam," a sultry-voiced, leggy female operator who gave him the message. You never saw Sam's face.
"It was murder for an actress," conceded Miss Moore, "particularly since I was working for scale and my name never was listed in the credits. But even if my face was never shown, I was getting as much mail as the star. At least, I heard I was getting as much mail—they never let me see a line of it."
At any rate, after the demise of the series, Mary Tyler Moore was able to disclose her identity. Because of the success of the Sam gimmick, she started getting better acting jobs. And "The Dick Van Dyke Show"' is the best one she has had to date.
Along with other members of the Van Dyke show cast, she is pleased with an impending move of the show from 8 p.m. EST Tuesday nights to 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday nights.
"All of us, including our sponsor, love the show," she said, "and the new time ought to help it. After all, over a third of the nation, it's only 7 o'clock when the show is seen now—and for the others, at 8, parents are busy putting the children to bed."
Moore is trying to put a good face on the show’s impending time change. A look at the schedule makes it seem CBS was trying to bury it for good. Van Dyke was moved off a dominant night for network and shoved opposite the second half of Hawaiian Eye on ABC and NBC’s Perry Como, which was in the top 25 that season. And CBS was ready to bury it, too, if it weren’t for producer Sheldon Leonard making a personal pitch to the sponsor to keep it on the air, with the show picking up steam in summer reruns. Ironically, this very column of Lowry’s has Como’s show as “Recommended tonight” in a tag after the main story.

Whether Leonard dispatched Moore to work her charms on CBS executives or whether the network asked her to show up for a meet-and-greet is unclear, but she made a trip to 485 Madison Avenue to promote the show. A column in the Binghamton Press of June 23, 1962 reveals the end result and gives us more of Moore’s TV background.
Mary Tyler Moore: A Comedy Find

When Emmy-award winner Carl Reiner was laying out the format for The Dick Van Dyke Show, he made sure1 it had flexibility. The program had three top comedy pros in Van Dyke, Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie, to say nothing of Reiner himself. Any one, of these could catch the fancy of the TV audience more than the others, necessitating plot. changes and story adaptations.
Since this had happened on many TV series before, Reiner was ready. But while he kept his guns leveled in front, the culprit caught him in the back.
It was the innocuous role of Laura Petrie, a kind of straight-man wife who was supposed to set up the funny lines for star Dick Van Dyke. With the casting of Mary Tyler Moore in the role, it became an overnight sensation and writer Reiner was busy replotting, restating and rewriting.
"We knew right away," Reiner recently commented, "that, even though she hadn't done much comedy before, we had a great comedy find on our hands."
Reiner's assessment was well founded. When the show went off for the summer, Mary Tyler Moore was as much the star as Van Dyke, sometimes having whole scripts written just for her.
Although a newcomer to comedy, the fetching Miss Moore has ample television background to her credit. She has wracked up a total of 60 television television appearances before beginning on the Van Dyke Show in such standards as Bachelor Father, 77 Sunset Strip and Hawaiian Eye. In her best role, she wasn't even seen. This was the sultry voice of "Sam," the beautiful secretary to private eye Richard Diamond.
A few weeks ago Miss Moore came to New York to greet a meeting of CBS executives, present herself to the New York television press, and take a quick trip to Brooklyn, where she was born and raised.
"I'm sorry I went," she remarked on the return taxi trip. "The house looks smaller, the neighborhood so less inviting than I remembered. Perhaps it is a good idea to keep memories instead of trying to revive them. The results are usually pretty disappointing."
Miss Moore was born in Brooklyn but moved to California with her family when she was 8. Growing up in Hollywood she acquired the star lust as most Californla kids do. In Mary's case, she had an edge with two relatives already in show business.
Her Uncle Harold was a vice-president of the Music Corporation of America, a powerful talent and production agency, and her Aunt Bertie was a radio executive. Unfortunately, her connections got her nowhere, I don't think I was very feminine at the time."
She did finally crack the business, starting in television commercials, where money and image take a great toll of actresses. The money (Miss Moore earned $10,000 from one series of commercials) can make her terribly lazy, and the relationship of an actress's face to a given product can make her undesirable to dramatic producers. She broke with commercials using two devices." One was a chorus dancing job with Eddie Fisher and the other was "Sam," which used only her legs and voice.
Today her face is one of the most popular in all of show business, a fact she didn't appreciate too much until her New York trip. While here she found it quite uncomfortable having to hide in public for fear of small riots attending her even on a stroll down Fifth Avenue.
"I suppose California has me unaccustomed to this, sort of thing," she remarked. "Out there you can go to the farmers' market and rub elbows with a dozen stars in. 12 minutes. But this is different. It is both frightening and exhilarating to be mobbed by fans, and it's also very enlightening for an actress who isn't sure if she is a star.
Today, more than five decades after the role that brought her fame, it seems silly to think that Reiner was taking a chance putting Mary Tyler Moore in a big role on the small screen. But that’s what he did. And today, TV comedy fans are pretty happy he did.

1 comment:

  1. The Dick Van Dyke Show was also helped that second season by following a new sitcom that shot immediately to the top of the ratings, The Beverly Hillbillies.