The cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show—Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper, Betty White, Cloris Leachman, and Georgia Engel—made history in the ‘70s as women the sitcom world had never seen: independent, snarky, sexy, and funny, each in her own way. Now they’re making news by reuniting for an episode of White’s TV Land show, Hot in Cleveland, this summer — to mark four decades of friendship and to support Harper as she battles brain cancer.
Here, a look back at what made these comic legends’ career-changing roles on The Mary Tyler Moore Show so special, as chronicled in my new book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.
Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards
Character background: The suburban Minnesota girl comes to the big city of Minneapolis to start a new life at 30 after leaving her sorta-fiance Bill, a dud of a doctor whom she helped through med school but who still doesn’t want to get hitched. When we meet Mary, she’s just snagged a cute studio apartment and a job as associate producer at struggling WJM-TV’s evening news.
Best scenes: 1) Her iconic beret-toss of independence in the opening credits.
2) Her maniacal — and wildly inappropriate — laughter at Chuckles the Clown’s funeral.
3) Her mother drops her father off for some daddy-daughter time, and Mom calls out as she leaves, “Don’t forget to take your pill!” Both father and daughter answer in unison: “I won’t!” A nation is scandalized by the birth-control reference.
Signature style: She virtually invented classic working-woman-without-the-suit style, with her tastefully short skirts, knee-high boots, shirt dresses, blazers, and slacks.
Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern
Character background: Born in the Bronx, Rhoda moved to Minneapolis a few years before meeting Mary. At first presented as a possible adversary for the much sweeter, softer leading lady — the two fight over an apartment in the pilot — Rhoda quickly becomes Mary’s best friend.
Best scenes: 1) During the third-season episode “Rhoda the Beautiful,” when, after spending most of the episode bemoaning her lack of confidence in her looks, Rhoda wins a beauty contest at her workplace, the fictional Hemples department store. When she returns home from the contest, she fibs to neighbors Mary and Phyllis and says she lost, but then thinks better of it and returns to Mary’s apartment to share the news with her friend: Yes, she won!
2) When the brother of her arch-nemesis Phyllis visits, Rhoda starts hanging out with him, which rattles Phyllis. Finally, she confronts Rhoda about it at a party, where Rhoda dismisses her with a shrug: “He’s not my type.” An enraged Phyllis lists off his qualities — he’s attractive, successful, smart … Rhoda ends the list: “He’s gay.” Phyllis sighs. “Thank God.”
Signature style: Lots of colorful headscarves, gypsy-inspired flowy tops, and oversized jewelry.
Betty White as Sue Ann Nivens
Character background: A fourth-season episode, “The Lars Affair,” introduces Sue Ann in some pretty scandalous circumstances: WJM’s “Happy Homemaker” meets Phyllis’ husband, Lars, at one of Mary’s parties and strikes up an unapologetic affair with him. White’s so winning, even as a homewrecker, that she becomes a regular character for the remaining four seasons of the show.
Best scenes: 1) Phyllis confronts Sue Ann about the affair on the set of “The Happy Homemaker.” As they spar in front of an oven from which Sue Ann has just removed a soufflé, Sue Ann kicks the oven door closed with a crude knee lift — a perfect physical manifestation of the coarse nature behind her act.
2) Sue Ann finally succeeds in cajoling newsroom boss Lou (Ed Asner) into a date, then tries to seduce him, only to be sweetly rejected—at least for the moment. “The treasure shouldn’t do the hunting,” he says, and we’re surprised to feel genuine pathos for White’s complex creation.
Signature style: Frilly, flowery housedresses and aprons fit more for a little girl (or ‘50s housewife) than a ‘70s-era career woman.
Cloris Leachman as Phyllis Lindstrom
Character background: Mary’s old friend lives in the building where Mary wants to live and helps her secure the apartment in the pilot. She turns out to be a smug, married, stay-at-home mom, the self-obsessed wife of a dermatologist.
Best scenes: 1) Phyllis, oblivious to Rhoda’s duress over her upcoming beauty pageant in “Rhoda the Beautiful,” tries to steal the moment for herself by singing a song she once performed during her own beauty-queen career.
2) The scene with Rhoda (mentioned above), when she finds out her brother is gay.
3) The scene with Sue Ann (mentioned above), when they spar over the affair. Yes, the indomitable Leachman has a way of being part of the best scenes.
Signature style: Updo with perfect loose tendrils framing her face, tastefully sexy floral-print mini-dresses.
Georgia Engel as Georgette Franklin
Character background: She’s ditzy enough to fall for the doofy newscaster Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) but deceptively sharp enough to keep him in line. Ted’s sweet future wife becomes one of Mary’s closest friends after the departure of Rhoda and Phyllis for their own spin-off series.
Best scenes: 1) Ted has her doing all of his chores until Georgette finally—with Mary and Rhoda’s coaching—stands up to him. She’s forceful despite her distinctive baby-like voice.
2) She meets Ted while hiding under furniture at a surprise party for Rhoda and earns his attention by swooning over his card-reading skills. But she ditches him instead of going home with him as he’d expected.
Signature style: Curly blond bob, soft, pastel-colored dresses.