Wednesday, 19 May 2021

The Wife, Mother and Ruby Keeler of 1961

Rose Marie had been a star on stage and radio back in the late ‘20s. Morey Amsterdam had been a variety show pioneer in early network television in the late ‘40s. Dick Van Dyke found success in a top Broadway musical in the earliest ‘60s.

And then there was Mary Tyler Moore.

To the world in 1961 she was pretty much unknown. Looking through newspapers before 1960, there are brief references to her appearing in Bourbon Street Beat and Bronco. But her casting on the Dick Van Dyke Show proved to be a stroke of genius. Her Laura Petrie was a completely different kind of wife and mother than anything else on television; in fact the whole show seemed smarter than comedies before it, which seem like they still had a foot stuck in old radio.

One could make the argument that her best years were ahead when she got her own situation comedy.

However, let’s look at a couple of stories from the early Van Dyke era. The first appeared in papers around March 23, 1963 and explain Tyler Moore’s background and how she was cast. National Enterprise Association columnist Erskine Johnson makes a comparison I never thought about before.

Chorine Set To Star, a la Ruby Keeler

HOLLYWOOD — (NEA) — Remember those old movie musicals with a chorus girl, usually Ruby Keeler, becoming a star through a series of fortunate but highly improbably events?
Well, here's the same story—for real. The new background is television, but the events are just as improbable.
Meet the heroine—gorgeous brunette Mary Tyler Moore, ex-chorus girl. She plays Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show on CBS. And as a sophisticated comedienne she has Carole Lombard's flair and a voice as offbeat as Myrna Loy's.
As Laura, she's Van Dyke's ever-lovin' wife. As a team, Van Dyke domestic comedy as William Powell and Myrna were in the "Thin Man" series.
Third From Left
Let's flash back to 1959 Eddie Fisher has a big musical show on NBC-TV. There is a line of shapely chorus girls, and the third from the left is Mary Tyler Moore.
But acting, not dancing in the chorus, is Mary's goal. Just like Ruby Keeler's.
Now fade out and fade in on the television series, "Richard Diamond." The show opens on a telephone operator whose face you never see. You just see a pair of shapely legs and hear her sultry voice.
Diamond's name for her "Sam." Pretty improbable.
In the first 18 shows Mary Tyler Moore was Sam. She received no billing but a lot of publicity as the show's doll of mystery. When she asked for more money to play the role she was fired and replaced by another "Sam."
She pouted to her agent at the time: "They won't let me see my fan mail."
Everyone at the studio where "Diamond" was filmed knew why they wouldn't let pretty Mary see her fan mail. As "Sam," she was receiving more letters than the star.
It was "Sam" who turned the trick for Mary. After seeing those legs and hearing that voice, casting directors were curious about the face. Once they met her, they hired her—and showed her face, too.
After leaving the chorus and before becoming "Sam," Mary was turned down for the role of Danny Thomas' eldest daughter. "Too sophisticated," said Danny. She worked in commercials used on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett."
She also found time to become the wife of television executive Grant Tinker.
Directors Impressed
It's 1962 [sic] now in our flashback. Carl Reiner, who created the Dick Van Dyke show, is looking for a girl to play Laura. As executive producer of the show, Danny Thomas suddenly remembers Mary Tyler Moore.
She's called in for an interview and hired for the role, which Reiner describes merely as "Van Dyke's charming wife."
But Mary's flair for comedy soon became obvious. The role became bigger and the lines became sharper. Directors were impressed with her ability.
One of them, John Rich, said, "She's like a sponge. She soaks up everything you suggest and it comes out as sparkling as if she had just thought of it." Her offbeat voice has been an asset, too. Personally, it gives Mary the shudders.
"It's so strident and nasal," is her analysis. It's the added touch in the chorus girl-to-Sam-to-Laura saga.
Come to think about it. Ruby Keeler's plots WERE that improbable.

This syndicated feature story ran in papers the weekend of August 4-5, 1962. By then, the Van Dyke show had been renewed through the forcible intervention of co-producer Sheldon Leonard, who convinced the sponsor to take another whack at it. Tyler Moore talks mainly about her wardrobe and being a mother.

Mary Tyler Moore Emancipates Housewife

HOLLYWOOD—There's a slight slim young actress out in Hollywood who has probably done more for the housewife in the past year than any one since the man who invented the first washing machine.
She is Mary Tyler Moore, who plays Dick Van Dyke's wife on the latter's CBS television series every Wednesday night.
And what has she done for the saintly state of the homemaker? Just freed her from the house-dress category and put her into capris. Pants, that is, not the island.
It should be noted, of course, that if all women were constructed like Mary Tyler Moore, capris would have achieved more popularity years earlier.
Known Fact
However, it's a known fact, although not listed in latest Bureau of Census figures, that the average housewife does wear pants of one type or another while toiling over a vacuous vacuum or dirty dishes. Ergo, says Mary:
"I decided to play the part honestly. I wear pants at home, all my friends wear pants at home. I wore pants on the show. And there was a lot of opposition at first. Some people said they were too tight.
"Other people said I shouldn't wear them at all. Carl Reiner, our producer, was on my side. So I held out against the opposition and, you know, the mail from viewers was in our favor too."
Mary concedes that many housewives who affect capris in their own homes shouldn't. But she won't set herself up as an expert on wardrobe advice.
From her long career as a dancer, prior to TV comedy and drama, she's blessed with slim hips, and still works out regularly at the American School of Dance in Hollywood.
"I can lose four pounds in 1 1/2 hours there," she says with satisfaction. "Of course it's all liquid, at first, but if I keep at it for a few weeks, regularly, the excess weight comes off too."
During the summer hiatus from filming the Van Dyke series, Mary has faced a weight problem. On June 1st she married NBC vice-president-in-charge-of-programming Grant Tinker.
"And he eats breakfasts! You know how it is when you're alone. A cup of black coffee for breakfast, no lunch if you're working around the house. And no weight problem.
"But now I'm doing the toasted English muffins with butter and jelly, all sorts of goodies. And I know there are some exercises in store before we shows," she smiles.
Mary shared the reaction of her co-stars when the renewal of the Van Dyke show was in doubt.
Broke Down
"I broke down and cried when I learned we were going to continue for another year," she confesses, “I'd been out all day during errands, and both Grant, who'd beard the news, and Carl Reiner had been phoning all day.
"When I got home, there was a big bunch of roses from Grant with a card reading: 'Take those to Sheldon Leonard. I knew he’d been east meeting with the sponsors. So I understood the message, and I just sat down on the floor and wept."
A girl with carefully thought out career plans, Mary hopes the Van Dyke series will continue at least another two seasons, and then she will try for a Broadway musical.
It was as a dancer, doing refrigerator and range commercials as a pixie, that she got her first job in television, and she later danced on several of the live variety shows that emanated from Hollywood a few seasons ago.
"I just don't believe you can ever stand still in our business. You need goals, and have to point toward them. Otherwise you get stale and stodgy. I suppose that's true of anyone in any field, however.
"Even as a native New Yorker, though, I wouldn't care to go back there to live permanently. I was nine when we moved to Hollywood, and I didn't go back until last season when I went to do publicity for the show.
"And I was really astounded. People are so rude there. If you smile at a cab driver, be looks at you like you're some kind of a nut. And I like to wear pants when I go to the store. Can't do that in New York, of course.
"Actually I can't do it here very much any more, either, I'm starting to be recognized by the fans. It's wonderful.
"But I find myself feeling I should check to make sure the lipstick is on right, my hair's combed. There's a responsibility involved. You can’t be a slob."
Of particular amusement to Mary was the rerun of a recent Van Dyke Show, a flashback sequence where she and Dick explain to their television son the circumstances leading to his birth. And via padding, she looked very, very, pregnant.
The next day she was shopping in swank Beverly Hills shop where most of the sales personnel know the activities of celebrities, and, were aware of her recent marriage. A couple of them commented, jokingly: "Ought you to be so active in your condition?" There is, of course, no condition. They were referring to the show they'd seen the night before.
"It was very embarrassing, just the same," she felt.
In actuality Mary is the mother of a young son by a previous marriage. Ritchie was six years old on July 3.
“I let him stay up to see the show on nights when he isn’t too tired, and he isn't at all confused by the fact that I have another little boy on the show also named Ritchie.
"I never even had to explain it to him. He sort of grew up knowing Mommy is an actress, and he really take it very much for granted.
"I'm more of a heroine among the other kids in the neighborhood than I am to my own child. I heard some of them saying to him one day: ‘Your mother's a television star, isn't she?’ And he said, ‘Yeah’, and went right on playing.
"If I had an inflated ego he'd have punctured it right then. But it's better he reacts that way, and doesn’t make a big thing out of it. He sort of understands.
Asks Questions
"Take today for example. He wanted to know where I was going. I explained I was to be interviewed by a writer. ‘What's interviewed?’ he asked. And I told him that a writer asks questions and then writes the story. ‘Will they write about me?’ he wanted to know. And I told him probably, since I do talk about him a lot. And that was it. He accepts it.
"Let him be an actor? Oh, I don't know. I don't think I'd want him to be a child actor. A friend of mine used his boy on his show for a brief walk-on. The youngster learned seven or eight lines for the scene, and when it was edited down, as sometimes happens, there were two lines left.
"Well, the child saw the show and was crushed and shattered. How do you explain it to him? For that matter, bow do you explain it to an adult? In this business you lose your objectivity in many ways. "And I wouldn't want Ritchie to be hurt. Oh sure, if Dick and Carl ever want him to do a walk-on on the Van Dyke show I wouldn't object, but as a regular career, uh-uh, not just yet."
Mary has firm views on child-raising as well as on her career. Without hedging, she says: “I’m an old-fashioned mother. I believe a good, hard, deliberate, well-planned spanking is necessary now and then. And I think he's grateful for it.
"Kids want guidance and discipline. Just as they want well-set-out chores. Ritchie dries the silver for me, tidies his room every day, and puts all his toys away when he's finished playing with them.
"I get very out of patience with my friends who let their children rule their homes. It's an adult world they're going to live in, and I figure they have to learn to get along with grown-ups. How better to start than at home, I always say."
And so it isn’t really an acting job that Mary Tyler Moore does on the Dick Van Dyke show every Wednesday night.
“I'm playing myself," she says honestly. "An average young housewife who is in love with her husband and son. It’s an ideal situation. And I get paid for it too!"

Not all of Tyler Moore’s post-Van Dyke career was a success. She wanted to do feature films, and her movies in the ‘60s were middling at best. She wanted to a musical/variety show on TV and despite David Letterman and Michael Keaton being in her cast, it didn’t go over.

None of this was truly devastating. After all, she had been part of two of the biggest sitcoms in television history.


  1. Have seen the Hotpoint commercials during " Ozzie and Harriet " on the " Essential Collection DVD ". 16mm prints with the original commercials. I always enjoy seeing the early work of performers who went on to make it big. Mary went on to say that she lost her job with Hotpoint when it was discovered she was pregnant. She joked about eventually trying to fit in that little outfit. Danny Thomas was funny talking about his nixing Mary to play his oldest daughter; " Look at her nose...look at MY nose!!! ". As Danny told it, he later on he went on to suggest Carl Reiner look for " That girl with three names ". The rest is history. I've heard more than one " Boomer " tell he that Mary and " those capris " got them through their teen years.

  2. Hans Christian Brando20 May 2021 at 18:01

    What a shame the notorious musical "Holly Golightly," aka "Breakfast at Tiffany's," was such a traumatic experience for her. She was totally miscast, but I bet she was charming.