I was not watching much television at the high point of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but I should have suspected something when some of my good friends, TV watchers and veterans of the Women’s Liberation Movement, mourned its passing in 1977 and perhaps even more, the early cancellation of the spin-off, Rhoda, a seemingly Jewish career woman’s saga, a year later. As recalled in the last few days by the death of the MTM star, the show and the persona obviously bolstered the vision of millions of women entering the job market determined to achieve and not to be treated as mere subordinates.
By sheer coincidence, in the early 1990s, I found myself getting the story of the Hollywood Blacklistees (most of them writers, and a large majority of them Jewish) through personal interviews of old timers, an effort filled out by looking at their work, film and television, as much as I could. Lots of surprises met me, like the lead co-writer of the best Abbott and Costello films ending up a valued scriptwriter for Lassie,Flipper, and Daktari, or another blacklisted writer who had few credits in film but more in radio and then television, shaping The Danny Thomas Show behind assorted fictional names. Or what I now think of as non-surprises, learning that my two favorite shows, as a kid, You Are There and The Adventures of Robin Hood respectively, had been largely written by mostly Jewish Reds on the run from the FBI and the blacklisters. The Mary Tyler Moore Show turns out to be a curiously connected story, destined to be central to a large phase of television history.
Things were happening, which is to say another generation of TV viewers had come to be seen as the new consumers, by 1960. As the Kennedy Era opened, there was a growing sense that social themes largely vanished after TV production had moved from New York to Los Angeles – and shifted in theme from live drama to omnipresent Westerns – were going to be more popular again. Sharp constraints on many topical themes remained firm, but a very few interracial dramas now crept in, along with the occasional dramatic shows starring women. These efforts made little headway. Then came The Dick Van Dyke Show or rather, Head of the Family, opening to small viewership in the Summer 1960 season.
Here’s the backstory: seasoned comedian Carl Reiner, who later titled his memoir Paul Robeson Saved My Life, was called in by producer Sheldon Leonard, another friend in the vicinity of the Hollywood Old Left in film and radio during the salad days of the 1940s. Reiner had written a somewhat successful Broadway play (later a small film) about the life of a television scriptwriter, based loosely upon his own life, and recast the material once more for television, offering audiences something uniquely urban and Jewish-inflected. Head of the Family, as a sort of insiders’ comedy, attracted interest among the critics, but was no hit. Now comes the decisive turn.
Sheldon Leonard, then best remembered for playing film mobsters, set up a new production company, with partners Reiner, Danny Thomas, and TV personality Dick Van Dyke, for a show closer to the tested-and-tried, stage-and-film Neil Simon formula (status anxiety, big city daily life, etc.) than anything tried so far on the small screen. The lead would be Dick Van Dyke and established television comedienne Mary Tyler Moore, with the veteran Jewish comedian Morey Amsterdam now as a supporting or rather, shpritzing scriptwriter.
Reiner and Leonard needed a new head writer. They called in an old and trusted friend: blacklistee Frank Tarloff, my (much later) interviewee, who had abandoned Danny Thomas and television at large for a breather, writing films in Britain. It was a marriage made in heaven, arguably even better than fictional Robbie and Laura. The Dick Van Dyke Show, whose stars had matching JFK and Jackie-style hairdos,added to the emerging sitcom formula innovative camera techniques, giving even the live studio audience the feel of watching something like a movie being made in front of them. It was a movie of the bright and funny, complicated personalities, somehow “Jewish” even when genetically Gentile, in the entertainment-writing world. Walter Bernstein, one of those writers on other shows, captured it perfectly again in The Front, a film made possible by Woody Allen, a youngster who knew the aging crowd of Jewish funny men very well. The ambience of The Dick Van Dyke Show was so charming, TV critic-historian David Marc quipped, rewriting the famous mordant phrase of Theodor Adorno,that “If there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, at least there can be New Rochelle,” the not-quite-Manhattan locus.
The magnetism of the stars and supporting cast also had another side that began to fulfill one of the blacklisted-and-persecuted Hollywood Old Left’s long-standing aspirations. Office, elevator and crowd scenes had African American actors, seen not in the standard TV menial roles like maids or butlers or performers in variety show acts,but as one more anonymous set of office-going professionals. Otherwise on the show, “Social Rules” as understood in 1950s American life were to be kidded continuously and in settings unfamiliar in various ways – without ever going too far. Dick Van Dyke got bar mitzvah lessons in one episode; in another, the happy couple, awarded at a banquet for their contributions to interracial progress, accidentally dip their hands in black dye and confront monumental embarrassment before the crowd of over-earnest, interracial liberals.
The Dick Van Dyke Show was a monumental hit (1961-66) and the spin-offs destined to be yet more memorable. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1971-77), yet stronger in character-driven humor, notoriously offered Mary as the independent career woman seeking something more important to her than catching a man, although definitely still given to embarrassing laugh-moments. As the associate producer of a television station in Minneapolis, she counted. Her bosom-buddy Rhoda, most definitely Jewish and at least as independent-minded, got her own show, albeit short-lived. And something else happened.
Lou Grant (1977-82), with lefty Ed Asner reprising his role as Mary’s boss but in the toughened status as journalistic muckraker and all-too-obviously Jewish radical, was arguably the first dramatic show to take on America’s imperial crimes, along other calculated crimes and disorders in high places. Red-baited continuously, Asner was as much as chased from the air, although he had his revenge in leading the Screen Actors Guild and serving as a burr in the saddle of the CIA-linked AFL-CIO leadership of the age. By that time, M*A*S*H, had long since spun off from a film co-written by Ring Lardner, Jr., one of the most famous of the blacklisted screenwriters, and was well on its way to becoming both the most watched (through residuals) and most peacenik series in television history. For that matter, Norman Lear’s comedies, All in the Family, the definitely Jewish Maud, and others – made possible by the quiet participation of blacklisted writers and their friends, had firmly established what might be called “social television” if never “socialist television,” once and for all. No surprise, Lear himself also had a long history with the Hollywood (Jewish) Left. Hello Roseanne and The Simpsons among many others to come, and for that matter Saturday Night Live, a while back: there was an audience for this stuff.
Mary Tyler Moore, the actress, had done her work. After MTM, she receded gradually from public life, despite films, television, and a campaign for public health attention to diabetes (from which she herself suffered, for decades). The big moment had passed for the creative team of writers and producers who had come of age just before or during the Second World War, with the vitality of the Popular Front all around them. Like the blacklisted screenwriters and directors, active in dozens of more and less memorable films under the blacklist and after, the aging stars who had known them so well continued on where they could, as long as they could.
Critics who snarled at television have always dismissed these social moments in popular entertainment as irrelevant or worse, good-tasting lures to the unwary liberal viewer. One of the stranger Cold War liberal tropes, familiar in the writings of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., among others, merged the alleged Communist conspiracy with the commercial-culture conspiracy, perhaps conspiring together to poison the prospects for “real culture” among the masses, as rock music allegedly ruined the taste for classical music. We hear less from the Snob Party these days, but they are always likely to return, generally reaffirming the virtues of liberal democracy American-style, also hawkish and empire-style, in a world of barbarisms. Those of us who have always enjoyed “a good show,” meanwhile, nurture warm memories about Mary Tyler Moore and the shifts in mass media that her work helped bring about.
Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner’s Hide in Plain Sight, a sequel to their Radical Hollywood, offers the details on the saga of the blacklisted Hollywood Left after 1950.
Paul Buhle, the thirteen-year-old of 1957 who wanted to be a science fiction writer when he grew up, but became a historian and comics editor instead.