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TV Stars Who Ruled the '70s

Revisit the most memorable small-screen stars of the decade.

In a decade that made room for both Charlie's Angels, M*A*S*H, Maude and more, these stars helped shape the TV landscape during this tumultuous period in American culture, as 1960s values seeped into mainstream culture. 

Alan Alda

Alan Alda M*A*S*H Photo

Alan Alda as Hawkeye in "M*A*S*H"

Alan Alda grew up in show business. His father Robert was an established actor, having starred in movies like Rhapsody in Blue, but during Alda's childhood, he was doing the rounds of burlesque shows, dragging his family along with him and putting young Alda into the act and photo ops whenever it served him best. Either despite or because of his background, Alda followed his father into the entertainment business. He was shooting a movie at the Utah State Prison when the script for the M*A*S*H pilot came his way. 

M*A*S*H changed television. It had a previously unseen balance of tragedy and comedy, delivered with wit, intelligence and compassion. Alda started out as a performer, quickly became the star, and ended up writing and directing some of the show's most memorable episodes. (He was so excited the first time he won a writing Emmy that he did a cartwheel after his name was announced.) He was the first person in TV history to win Emmys for acting, writing and directing the same series, and he directed and co-wrote the show's final episode, Goodbye Farewell and Amen, watched by a record number of viewers, a record that has yet to be broken. M*A*S*H ran for 11 seasons, lasting more than three times longer than the Korean War it took place in. 

Off the screen, Alda embraced the '70s, becoming one of the most prominent male voices for feminism of the decade. Not only was he an active campaigner for the ERA (which never passed), he made the cover of Ms. Magazine and wrote an essay for them coining the phrase "testosterone poisoning" to talk about the prevailing male attitude towards violence, women, and competition. He was also on Marlo Thomas’ TV special and record Free to Be . . . You and Me, which decried the "ladies first" mentality, reassured boys that owning a doll was okay, and told everyone that it was all right to cry, with a song sung by football superstar Rosey Grier.

Mary Tyler Moore

Mary Tyler Moore Photo

Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"

The minute The Dick Van Dyke Show creator Carl Reiner heard Mary Tyler Moore read the first line of the script at her audition, he knew he'd found the right actress, and marched her into producer Sheldon Leonard’s office with his hand on her head. He later called her the “Grace Kelly of comedians.” She became a star. 

When The Mary Tyler Moore Show launched in 1970, character Mary Richards was supposed to be divorced, but the network was worried people would think she was divorced from Rob Petrie, and changed the storyline so she'd just ended a relationship and embarked out on her own. The stage may have been set for a woman looking for a career several years earlier with Thomas on That Girl, but it was Richards who took it to the next level, building up a career, dating multiple men and even (gasp) turning down a marriage proposal because that wasn't the life she wanted yet. 

Behind the scenes, the show was breaking other boundaries. The writing staff, led by creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, had more female writers than any other show on television. They also talked about subjects you didn't see on other shows: everyday racism (against both Jews and African Americans), sexism (as Richards wearied of being called WJM's "only female executive"), birth control (Richards admits she's on the pill, and has overnight boyfriends) and homosexuality (when Phyllis is relieved to find out her brother’s gay because that means he’s not dating Rhoda.) 

The show had an incredible ensemble cast, but Richards was always at the center, and Moore had the star power and personal appeal to pull it off. The scripts were smart and funny, the cast loved working together, and it was alchemy at its best. The series won 39 Emmys in its seven seasons on the air and fostered three spin-offs, two reunion specials, and legions of young women (this writer included) putting their first initials up on their walls.

Viewers watched Richards evolve, as she learned to stand up for herself, move ahead in her career, throw bad dinner parties and give us a feminist hero who broke boundaries and had fun at the same time. Moore’s company, MTM Enterprises, went on to produce TV hits for years, including The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, The White Shadow, St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues, making Moore a powerhouse in the industry as well as a beloved performer.  

Farrah Fawcett

Farrah Fawcett

Farrah Fawcett

Fawcett had come up through commercials – a natural beauty with a dazzling smile. She had traffic-stopping looks, gorgeous wild hair, and was getting attention everywhere she went. She’d done the rounds of guest appearances on TV shows like The Partridge Family, The Flying Nun, I Dream of Jeannie and four appearances on The Six Million Dollar Man, which starred her then-husband Lee Majors. But it was something as simple as a pin-up poster that rocketed her into a new level of fame. 

Everyone knows that poster. Fawcett stares right into the camera, sporting a red bathing suit that somehow covers her up and doesn’t at the same time. The suit was actually hers – they wanted her to wear a bikini, but she didn’t own one. Fawcett did her own make-up and hair for that photoshoot, managing without a mirror and squeezing a bit of lemon juice into her hair for extra shine. She controlled her look completely, and it was she who picked the shot that would make it onto what would become one of the best-selling posters of all time. 

After that, she was a shoo-in for Charlie’s Angels, co-starring with Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith. Both men and women watched for the outrageously fun storylines, constant wardrobe changes, and the satisfaction of watching three women win the game every single time they played. While critics mocked the revealing outfits and the show’s obvious T&A factor, others saw it as embracing sexual liberation, with women in control. Fawcett herself was on the fence, saying, "When the show was number three, I figured it was our acting. When it got to be number one, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra." But social critic Camille Paglia, not one to mince words, called the show an "effervescent action-adventure showing smart, bold women working side by side in fruitful collaboration."

Farrah became Charlie’s Angels first breakout star, and was the first to leave the show. She broke her contract and her career suffered for it. She had to do six guest appearances on the show to make up for it, but it took years before she was able to establish herself as an actress again, finally gaining recognition for her work in the Off-Broadway play Extremities, the TV-movie The Burning Bed and Robert Duvall’s feature film The Apostle

Fawcett died in 2009, on the same day as Michael Jackson. She is still remembered as the quintessential '70s girl, with a hairstyle that was copied long into the next decade. 

Jimmie Walker

Cast of Good Times Photo

The cast of "Good Times" in 1974: (from left) Ralph Carter as Michael, Bern Nadette Stanis as Thelma, Jimmie Walker as JJ, Esther Rolle as Florida and John Amos as James

When the Maude spin-off Good Times was created, the show was centered on Esther Rolle and John Amos as Florida and James Evans, struggling to pay the bills and raise a family in Chicago. While the show covered the challenges of working multiple jobs and keeping your kids safe in the projects, comedian Jimmie Walker, hired to play oldest brother JJ, became a breakout star. 

While Rolle and Amos lamented that more serious storylines had to take a back seat, producers capitalized on the appeal of Walker, giving him more and more screen time each week. When director John Rich came up with the catchphrase “Dyn-o-mite!” it was pure gold. He insisted, despite executive producer Norman Lear’s skepticism, that JJ should say the phrase at least once in every episode, and it became a hit.

Walker was smart – he knew how to seize the moment. He was already doing stand-up comedy as much as his shooting schedule would allow, employing a team of writers made-up of future stars like Jay Leno and David Letterman. He even got Leno a guest appearance on Good Times, having to talk the reluctant producers into giving him a shot. Walker stayed with the show until the end, outlasting both Amos and Rolle. He was a TV staple throughout the '70s and '80s, doing the game and talk show circuits, various rounds of Battle of the Network Stars, and like every other star of the time, The Love Boat. He’s still doing stand-up, and has no regrets, standing behind the decision all those years ago that made “Dyn-o-mite!” a household expression.

Telly Savalas 

Telly Savalas Photo

Telly Savalas

While he may not seem like an obvious choice for a pin-up, back in the 1974, Telly Savalas’ shirtless cover of People was a game-changer for the magazine, giving them their first issue that finally sold a million copies on the newsstand. Women wrote to People in droves asking to see the bottom half of the photo. 

Savalas hadn’t even started his acting career until he was in his late 30s. He was in the original Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, did four movies with Burt Lancaster, and in 1965 played Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told, for which he had to shave his head. He kept the look since it made him more successful with women. 

Savalas was an avid golfer and a world-class poker player with a degree in psychology, but it was his role as the wisecracking Lieutenant Theo Kojak that made him a household name. The magnet-attached light he put on his car as he joined a high-speed chase became known as a “Kojak light” among police, and the show won him an Emmy in 1974. Kojak was a magnet for guest stars, many of whom would go on to play police officers in future TV shows, like Daniel J. Travanti (Frank Furillo), Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky), Sharon Gless (Cagney), Jerry Orbach (Briscoe), Abe Vigoda (Fish), Tige Andrews (Captain Greer) and Andre Braugher (Frank Pembleton and Ray Holt). 

Others notable guest stars made their way onto Kojak either before or after hitting it big, among them James Woods, John Ritter, Harvey Keitel, Dabney Coleman, Robert Loggia, Sylvester Stallone, Richard Gere and Liberace. Richard Donner even directed several episodes, and so did Savalas himself. 

Sonny and Cher

Sonny and Cher

Sonny and Cher, circa 1965

Sonny Bono and Cher started out as singers long before they hit TV screens. In the '60s, they worked as R&B back-up singers for producer Phil Spector, then had major hits in the mid-'60s as a duo. Their biggest hit, “I Got You Babe,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965, and has since been named as one of the greatest duets of all time by both Billboard and Rolling Stone

Their move to TV made them into even bigger stars. They brought 70s attitudes and fashion first to The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, which premiered in 1971 as a summer replacement series and came back later that year in prime time, eventually scoring 15 Emmy nominations and remaining in the Top 10 for four years. The show was known for musical numbers, recurring sketches like “The Laundrette” with Cher and Teri Garr, Cher’s Vamp sequence, her outrageous Bob Mackie-designed outfits, and the weekly closing performance by the two stars of “I Got You Babe.” Their daughter Chastity (now Chaz) made frequent appearances as well, indicating that the swinging couple of the '70s also had a strong family life.

They didn’t. They ended the show in 1974 during their divorce and branched off on their own. Bono’s show lasted only six weeks, but Cher’s was a hit, featuring high octane guests like Bette Midler, Elton John and Flip Wilson. In 1976, they returned to TV in The Sonny & Cher Show. Its stars reconciled on camera with a handshake, but the relationship had been through too much bitterness to last, and despite good ratings, the show only lasted two seasons.  

They each went on to bigger and better things. Cher became a best-selling artist and an Oscar winner. Bono was elected mayor of Palm Springs and then became a congressman in 1995. He died in 1998 in a skiing accident, the same year Sonny and Cher finally got their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, cementing their legacy as part of the fabric of '70s television. 

READ MORE: How Sonny and Cher Went From TV's Power Couple to Bitter Exes

 Ricardo Montalban

Ricardo Montalban Photo

Ricardo Montalban, 1997

Now most famous as Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island and Khan from Star Trek and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Ricardo Montalban was ubiquitous on '70s TV sets as the commercial spokesman for the Chrysler Cordoba. His description of the “soft, Corinthian leather” was so memorable, it was parodied endlessly, but he meant every word; during the peak of his Fantasy Island fame, he drove a custom-built Cordoba upholstered in the very leather whose virtues he was famous for extolling. 

Before TV screens, he’d done dozens of movies and was the first Hispanic actor on the cover of Life magazine. Despite movie studios’ efforts to get him to change his name (with Ricky Martin as one of the preferred choices), he kept his real name as well as his Mexican citizenship. In 1971, unhappy with the way he was asked to portray Mexicans onscreen, he helped found an advocacy group for Latinos working in TV and movies called Nostros, and a year later, co-founded the Screen Actors Guild Ethnic Minority Committee. 

Montalban was also known for his role in two of the Planet of the Apes movies and continued to appear in TV shows and movies throughout the '70s and '80s. In 2002, he was hired by Robert Rodriguez to play Grandfather Valentin in two of the Spy Kids movies; his character was given a jet-powered wheelchair since Montalban had suffered a spinal injury that prevented him from walking. 

His last two roles were on animated shows. He guest-starred both on Family Guy and American Dad!, proving that his distinctive voice still had to stay power decades after his arrival in Hollywood in the 1940s.