Actress Mary Tyler Moore passed away on January 25th at age 80. Moore was synonymous with two character roles that cemented her place into television history: Laura Petrie from “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, and the iconic fictional WJM-TV producer Mary Richards in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (MTMS), both were on CBS.
Moore’s role as Mary Richards has been lauded for opening doors for women during a very important era in American history. The role of women in the 1970’s was starting to evolve from housewife to living independently, taking on non-stereotypical careers, and having a larger role in society.
As important as she was, whether on television or in real life as a role model, Mary Richards wasn’t alone during the era of the 70’s as it relates to influential and groundbreaking TV female characters.
Ever heard of Alice Hyatt, Maude Findlay, or Julia Baker?
Let’s start with the supporting cast on MTMS. Des Moines, Iowa’s own Cloris Leachman was Phyllis Lindstrom, Mary’s snobbish landlady, Valerie Harper played Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary’s best friend and neighbor, the amazing Betty White as the sharp-tongued man-hungry Sue Ann Nivins, and Georgia Engel as Georgette Franklin, the loyal girlfriend (and later wife) of dim-witted and vain weatherman Ted Baxter.
MTMS made Harper, Leachman, Engel, McLeod, Anser, and Ted Knight superstars. MTMS was one of the first television series with an ensemble cast that was as talented as they come, and was one of the first series to create successful spin-offs series for Rhoda, Phyllis, and Lou Grant (character played by Ed Anser).
MTMS wasn’t the only show that featured a female as a star and living a life that was unconventional during that time.
“Early to rise, early to bed, and in between I’ve cook and cleaned and went out of my head, going through life with blinders on is tough to see, I had to get up, get out from under and look for me…” – lyric to “Alice”(version 1) sung by Linda Lavin
“Alice” was another significant series, in my mind, as it relates to the changing roles of women.
Linda Lavin played Alice Hyatt, a widowed mother who moves from New Jersey to Phoenix to start her life over again with her son while she pursues a singing career.
She takes a job as a waitress at Mel’s Diner, working for Mel (Vic Tayback), a grouchy bombastic owner and cook. She works alongside shy and awkward Vera (Beth Howland), and Polly Holliday as the sassy whip-smart Flo (of “Kiss my grits!” fame). Diane Ladd later joined the cast as Belle Dupree and Cecila Watson played Jolene Hunnicutt. Alice produced a spin-off for Holliday, titled (of course) “Flo”.
“Alice” was important because she was “starting over” after a tragedy by moving away from home to pursue her dreams and a better life for her son Tommy and her. Along the way, Flo, Belle, and Alice helped Vera grow from an awkward and less-confident person to one who could stand up for herself during one of Mel’s put-downs and then falling in love and getting married to police officer Elliott. They met when Elliott gave Vera a ticket for jaywalking.
If Mary Tyler Moore was the gold standard, then “Maude” was not far behind. Bea Arthur played the “uncompromising, enterprising, anything but tranquilizer” Maude Findlay, an older woman who was never shy to speak her mind, much to the consternation and admiration of her fourth husband Walter (Bill Macy). “Maude” was groundbreaking in several ways. The series tackled topics such as “women’s lib”, abortion, and the clash of cultures.
“Maude” was spun off from “All in the Family” where Maude clashed with Archie Bunker and driving her conservative neighbors the Harmons (Conrad Bain and Rue McClanahan) crazy with her liberal viewpoint. Arthur and McClanahan would reunite nearly a decade later, with Betty White, to do “The Golden Girls”.
Her relationship with African-American housekeeper Florida Evans (Esther Rolle) was insightful in that she clumsily tries to show how liberal and open-minded she is when interacting with Florida, to which Florida usually gets the last laugh at Maude’s expense.
Florida ended up having a spin-off series of her own: “Good Times”.
I could go on, but I’ll stop here. There are other shows below that, along with “MTMS”, “Alice”, and “Maude”, were shows, in my opinion, that showed women in starring roles and in turn becoming role models during the 70’s for women through television.
The Liver Birds: British series about two single women living on their own in Liverpool, England during the 70’s. Carla Lane and Myra Taylor, two Liverpool housewives created and wrote the series. (Sidenote: the alternative theme song is catchy.
“Julia”: Diahann Carroll stars as a widowed nurse Julia Baker. The series was one of the first to cast an African-American in a white-collar professional role.
“Laverne and Shirley”: We all know about these two. They were the American version of “The Liver Birds”. Schlemiel! Schlimazel!