In the early ’70s, single women spent dateless Saturday nights watching Mary, the first woman on television who felt real, like one of us. During one of those sessions with a friend, I surprised both of us by blurting out, “Why don’t we try writing an episode?” Secretaries in the entertainment industry, we knew script format. Because I was working for the comedy legend Carl Reiner, agents were always milling around my office, so I could get our script read.
I’d been with Carl for five years and would have stayed forever, except that the women’s movement had me thinking of something more. Though writing was my passion, it was preposterous to consider two 30-year-old women breaking into the male-dominated world of TV writers. But before my friend could argue, I rattled off a story line. We spent the next month eating dinners in taco joints, scribbling on a yellow pad, determined to finish a draft despite expectations as low as our dinner tabs.
After reading our script, Carl said: “It’s terrific. If I was producing Mary’s show, I’d buy it.” I was over the top excited until he added, “But I’m doing a series for Dick” (The New Dick Van Dyke Show with Hope Lange as Dick’s wife), “and none of my pencils has a point. I used to have sharp pencils.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“You were writing. I didn’t want to interrupt you,” he explained. I hadn’t realized he’d seen me toying with our script at my desk. “Maybe use a pen,” I teased. Carl was easygoing and I felt sure he wouldn’t fire me, but I wanted him to be happy. I sharpened a box of pencils and even removed the dead people from his phone list.
When he suggested we come in Monday with ideas for Van Dyke, my excitement quickly morphed into anxiety. What if we disappointed him? An hour later, the anxiety turned to panic. An agent who’d read our spec script called to say a producer with a new series wanted to meet with us. Inexperienced and with my full-time job, I worried we couldn’t handle one assignment, let alone two.
Somehow we did. Everyone was happy except for CBS, which deemed the plot of our Dick Van Dyke episode too racy to air. Carl and Dick filmed it at their own expense, thinking the network would reconsider. When that didn’t happen, Carl walked off the show. The drama of it all got a lot of attention and job offers for us, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the one we most wanted, the one that spoke to and for us.
At our first meeting, Jim Brooks (who co-executive produced Mary’s show with Allan Burns) greeted me enthusiastically, “You’re Rhoda!” To my partner, he said, “And you’re Mary.” The script we were hired to write was based on my experiences with Carl. Our story had Mary producing a documentary on her own that gets high ratings. Her boss, Lou Grant, starts to feel sheepish about asking her to get him doughnuts.
The B story had Rhoda falling for a guy and being unable to take Mary’s advice to play it cool. Like me, Mary’s best friend was Jewish, a former New Yorker who quipped about her insecurities. She was the perfect opportunity to use a joke I’d come up with for myself should I ever marry: “I can see the invitations now: Mr. and Mrs. Martin Morgenstern are relieved to announce the marriage of their daughter, Rhoda, to Douglas Hemple, who’s not nearly good enough for her.”
Before Mary Tyler Moore, it was acceptable to be a secretary, but not to be unmarried. Suddenly it was fine to be unmarried, and we were reaching for better jobs. Along with that blue beret, the rules had been thrown in the air. The show was arguably the most transformative sitcom in television history, forever changing how women were perceived. Through her screen character, Mary Tyler Moore chipped away at America’s resistance to the idea of powerful women. Blending feminism, femininity, and fun, her show was also the first to recognize that a series with a female lead should hire women writers.
In 1983, 10 years after our episode first aired, I caught a rerun from a hospital room as I held my 2-day-old son. I’d gone on to a satisfying career, lucky enough to write for Maude, Northern Exposure, and other terrific shows. None of it would have happened without Mary Tyler Moore. She gave me the spunk (“chutzpah,” as Rhoda might have called it) to become a writer.
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Sybil Adelman Sage is a writer and artist in New York. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.