Excerpt from MARY AND LOU AND RHODA AND TED by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
There is a certain trajectory your life takes when you create a classic book or movie, song or television show. It's a path followed by all those who accomplish this rare feat, and yet they never know they're on it atthe time. And thus they never know if the vision they're fighting for is valid, much less great. They don't know of the accolades, or the difficulties, that are to come. They don't know how hard it will be to move on from such a rarefied experience, nor how hard it will be to duplicate it, but they will try, because, let's face it, they won't have much choice. Most of them will find out that comebacks are hard to come by. Then they will, if they are lucky, come to accept that even one classic in one's life is quite enough, and they will sit back and enjoy all the glory that gives them before their time is through.
It is not, all in all, a bad life. But it's not as easy as it looks, either.
Jim Brooks was on his way to such a fate, though he never would have guessed it, when he was spending his days writing copy for CBS News in New York — reports on the Bay of Pigs, Andy Warhol, Beatlemania, anything and everything that came through on the clanging wire service machines.
It was 1961, and some form of network news had been a standard part of American life for nearly forty years, since the days of radio. Now television had taken over the country, but it was only just hitting its stride. News was at the forefront of every development in television: The first national live television broadcast in the United States was President Harry Truman's 1951 speech in San Francisco at the conference for the Treaty of Peace with Japan. A then–cutting-edge microwave relay system allowed viewers in local markets across the country to hear the president's words at the same time, united, as a nation. Two months later, commercial television had its first live national broadcast with CBS's See It Now, a newsmagazine series that opened with a split screen of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge — look! Both coasts! See it now! As the 1960s began and Brooks got hired at CBS, more developments in technology allowed the news to be almost up‑to-the-minute when it aired. He had timed his stumble into the business well.
The job required a lot from a guy without a news background, without even a college diploma — Brooks had dropped out of New York University. Now twenty-one, he had lucked into the gig with help from a friend of his sister. The job was exhausting, but he found refuge in watching television when he got home. Not the news — no more news, please — but comedy, The Dick Van Dyke Show in particular. While I Love Lucy had perfected the sitcom, Dick Van Dyke made it more realistic, wringing its comedy not from far-fetched shenanigans but from everyday situations. Brooks liked that Dick Van Dyke was about a TV writer, Rob Petrie; even though Rob wrote for a variety show, Brooks could relate at least a little.
More importantly, this show had more believable characters than the sitcoms that came before it, even if they were funnier than ordinary people. When Rob's wife, Laura, ruined a sexy weekend getaway by getting her toe stuck in a bathtub faucet, the incident made audiences laugh, but it also made (some) sense — more sense than Lucille Ball stomping grapes or working at a chocolate factory, in any case.
Female viewers could imagine being Laura, because the woman playing her, Mary Tyler Moore, was vulnerable and goofy along with being pretty; male viewers wanted to be Rob for the same reasons. Laura was never more adorable than when she called out, from behind a closed door, to explain her stuck toe: "I was playing with a drip."
Moore could make a toe stuck in a faucet sexy and funny. She was a twenty-five-year-old actress with a brunette flip that women across the country were asking their hairstylists to re‑create, a huge smile, gorgeous legs, and impeccable comic timing. The former dancer had grown up in Brooklyn Heights watching Milton Berle on television in the early '50s and aspiring to perform like Mr. Television himself. Her grandfather, watching her prance around the house one afternoon in her youth, had cracked, "This child will either end up onstage or in jail." She'd known even before then — from the age of about three, when she discovered her love of showing off — that it would be the former. By about the age of nine, just after World War II ended, she had moved with her family to Los Angeles at the urging of an uncle who was doing well there working as a music agent. Little Mary welcomed the move, figuring that it would bring her closer to being discovered by Hollywood.
She was, as it turned out, right. She'd gotten her first breaks on such television dramas as 77 Sunset Strip and briefly as Sam, the sultry secretary on Richard Diamond who was known to audiences only by her voice, lips, and legs. Moore was originally uncredited in the role but soon demanded a place in the credits and a raise when the character became a sensation. The producers turned her down, so she quit, then revealed her identity to the world in a small publicity coup. Soon after, she'd been chosen to play Laura Petrie as a "straight woman" to Van Dyke's goofy charmer in his sitcom.
Nonetheless, Dick Van Dyke's creator, Carl Reiner, had seen some inkling of humor in the actress and first tested it out in an early episode called "My Blonde-Haired Brunette," in which Laura bleaches her hair to ridiculous effect in an effort to spice up their marriage. When she's forced to explain the debacle to her husband, she tells him in a masterful monologue-cum-crying-jag about what she's done. In that moment, Moore felt the first thrill of making the audience laugh instead of simply setting up Van Dyke's lines. The cry would become her trademark comedy move, reminiscent of Ball, and the incident proved to Reiner that Moore was a real comedian. The producer began gearing episodes more toward the couple at home than he had originally planned when conceiving the show, and eventually even gave her a catchphrase: "Oh, Rob!"
From MARY AND LOU AND RHODA AND TED by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Copyright 2013 by Jennifer Armstrong. Excerpted with permission of Simon & Schuster, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.