The Special that Helped Mary Tyler Moore Make it on Her Own
In September of 1970, Mary Richards left her Midwestern home town (and jerk boyfriend) to start a new life as a single career woman. A decade earlier, Laura Petrie reminded TV viewers that sitcom wives could be a husband’s best friend, not his antagonist. Both characters were groundbreaking in their own way, but they had one thing in common: they were played by Mary Tyler Moore, who died on January 25 at age 80.
On Monday night, January 30, getTV remembers one of the most transformational stars in American television history with two rarely broadcast programs: a 1969 variety show that might be considered her “comeback special” and a 1960 drama that is one Moore’s TV earliest appearances.
Three years after The Dick Van Dyke Show ended, Mary Tyler Moore’s career had tripped over the ottoman. Her follow-up project – a Broadway musical based on Breakfast at Tiffany’s in which she played Holly Golightly – was a headline-grabbing flop, shuttered by producer David Merrick after a handful of previews. Moore rebounded with a supporting role in George Roy Hill’s film adaptation of Thoroughly Modern Millie, but her next few movies faltered. By the time she played Elvis’ final leading lady – a nun – in the clunky Change of Habit, it was clear that Mary Tyler Moore’s quirky charm was better served by the small screen. That’s when Dick Van Dyke called.
“After the show went off the air, Mary had the reputation of being the wife, the woman who brings the coffee. So we cooked up this special called Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman where we showed off everything she could do,” the 91-year-old Van Dyke told The Hollywood Reporter the day Moore died. “(T)hat somehow changed CBS’ mind and that’s how she got The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Not available on DVD and rarely seen since its original broadcast, Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman may be the missing link in Moore’s career, the bridge between Laura Petrie and Mary Richards. Even if you’ve watched every episode of both sitcoms, it’s likely you haven’t seen anything like this delightfully odd mash-up of a Dick Van Dyke reunion show and a 1930s Busby Berkeley musical revue.
Written by Bill Persky and Sam Denoff, the creative team behind many of the series’ 158 episodes, the special opens with Van Dyke serenading cardboard cutouts of his TV wife in a sequence that evokes “I Only Have Eyes for You” from Berkeley’s 1934 classic Dames. Then MTM shows up in a gorgeous gown by Bob Mackie and Van Dyke begins to gush (right along with the rest of us).
“After doing a series together for five years, Mary just holds a special place in my heart,” he says, as she flashes the sort of toothy grin people write song lyrics about. She is, and always will be, his “other woman,” the star tells us.
Moore and Van Dyke next sing a hilariously meta duet called “Life is Like a Situation Comedy,” in which they mock hackneyed sitcom scenarios. Van Dyke follows with a mime act that harkens back to his early days as a pantomime performer in a comedy duo called The Merry Mutes. Then Mary, Dick, and a dozen injured skiers dance to Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk,” complete with overhead shots and elaborate crutches choreography. I can’t help but wonder if Busby Berkeley was watching on TV and kicking himself for not having thought of that himself thirty years earlier.
In the program’s final musical number, Van Dyke and Moore play wedding cake toppers, still bickering after 25 years in a married couple’s freezer. In this sequence, and throughout the special, you can see the beginning of MTM’s evolution from 1960s homemaker to 1970s empowerment icon, all facilitated by her beloved former co-star.
But the best segment of the special is the finale, in which Van Dyke and Moore (sort of) reprise their roles as Rob and Laura on a replica of the Dick Van Dyke Show set (complete with the theme song). They play clips from the series, reminisce about the production, and stage an homage to one of the show’s best-loved episodes. It’s a fitting tribute to a series that was already on its way to becoming a classic.
Van Dyke’s musical abilities were well known after wowing audiences in Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but Moore’s may have been a surprise to some, despite Laura’s backstory as a dancer and the Petries’ propensity to bust a move. Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman is a huge treat for fans, like a lost musical episode of the Van Dyke Show in color. But more significantly, it’s Dick’s love letter to Mary and further proof that their infectious on-screen chemistry was backed by genuine affection. And without this special, Mary Tyler Moore might never have turned the world on with her smile a year later, so we all owe a debt a gratitude to Mr. Van Dyke.
Following Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman, getTV will air an episode of Johnny Staccato, a 1960 noir series with John Cassavetes as a private detective and Moore guest starring as a gun-toting beauty queen. This episode, entitled The Mask of Jason, fills in another gap in Moore’s career, between her start as a dancing pitchwoman for Hotpoint appliances and her breakout role as Mrs. Rob Petrie. If we learn anything from these rare programs, it’s that Mary Tyler Moore was even more talented than we knew.
“She was brilliant,” Mary Tyler Moore Show creator James L. Brooks told The Hollywood Reporter after her death. “Nobody ever found the thing she couldn’t do.”
Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman airs Monday, January 30 at 11 pm ET/8 pm PT followed by Johnny Staccato at 12 am ET/9 pm PT. And watch for other classic variety shows every Monday night on getTV!