When Mary Tyler Moore beat out an unknown Off-Broadway actress named Eileen Brennan for the role of Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show, Moore was best known for her legs. After five years of small television parts, Moore’s only regular role had been as a telephone operator on Richard Diamond, Private Eye, a jazzy noir in which the camera leered at her limbs but never showed her face. The gimmick earned Moore a lot of publicity, but little in the way of challenging work.
That changed in a hurry after Moore auditioned for Carl Reiner, creator-producer of The Dick Van Dyke Show, who thought the nervous 24- year-old had good timing and a natural way of delivering her lines. Since the pilot was set to shoot in only a week, Reiner decided to take a chance. During the five-year run of what is universally acknowledged as one of television’s smartest and most sophisticated comedies, Moore became the Mary Tyler Moore we remember today — gifted comedian, versatile actress, and ground-breaking feminist. (The famous Capri pants Laura Petrie often donned, at a time when women on television wore dresses and pearls at home, were Moore’s idea.) Here are ten episodes that showcase Moore’s contributions to The Dick Van Dyke Show, all available on Hulu.
“My Blonde-Haired Brunette”
The ninth episode shot but the second one broadcast, “Brunette” was moved up in the schedule as a vote of confidence for Moore’s performance, which eliminated any doubts that she could hold her own with the more experienced comedic actors in the ensemble. A few thoughtless remarks convince Laura Petrie that her husband has started to take her for granted, and when he plucks out her first gray hair, she impulsively bleaches it. It’s a story line that would have humiliated a lesser actress, but Moore’s stricken expression when Laura (and we) see the results of the bad dye job is lovely — instead of trying to top the sight gag, she goes for a universal, human moment, signaling Laura’s embarrassment over having taken things too far. Reiner carefully coached Moore on what would become a running gag: a quaver in Laura’s voice, as she confesses some mishap to a befuddled Rob, that builds to an incomprehensible torrent of sobs. If Lucille Ball’s shrill wail was funny because it was so over-the-top, Moore’s crying jags connected on a more emotional level, as nuanced exaggerations of everyday insecurity and self-doubt.
“Oh How We Met the Night That We Danced”
The first of many flashbacks to Rob and Laura Petrie’s courtship during his army service, this extended meet-cute lets Moore try out a frosty Katharine Hepburn riff as Laura proves initially unimpressed by the smitten Rob. She finally changes her mind (well … starts to) when Rob crashes her performance of “You, Wonderful You” and the pair banter throughout a complicated dance number. The producers were unaware of Moore’s singing and dancing skills when they cast her, but took advantage of them in many episodes as a way of integrating Laura into Rob’s professional life as a variety-show writer.
“The Curious Thing About Women”
The plot of this early episode, in which Rob objects to Laura opening his mail, is one that Carl Reiner always regretted, because it sacrifices the delicate reality of the characters — the Petries should have trusted each other more than that — for the sake of a sight gag. But Moore aces the big slapstick bit, in which Laura gives in to her curiosity and opens a package that turns out to be highly inflatable. The Dick Van Dyke Show had been built around Van Dyke’s preternatural skill as a physical comedian, and when Moore aced this scene, it proved she was Van Dyke’s equal where it really mattered.
“The Two Faces of Rob”
Van Dyke and Moore were so versatile, they could take turns playing the straight man (or woman) for each other. This episode is one of the purest presentations of Rob as a fool and Laura as the mature half of the couple. The intricate set-up has Rob telephoning Laura in the guise of a flirtatious stranger. When Laura responds in kind, Rob can’t tell whether she means it or if she’s playing along — and neither can we, because Moore’s poker face is so good. When Laura nonchalantly fesses up, all the way at the end of the final second act, it’s one of Moore’s most delicious line readings.
“The Life and Love of Joe Coogan”
If The Dick Van Dyke Show had a stock plot, it was the one about the old flame who resurfaced and triggered a bout of jealousy within the Petrie marriage. It got stale after a while, but at least the repetition of this trope emphasized what the show was too classy to exploit overtly — that Van Dyke and Moore were two of the most desirable people on television in the early ’60s. This atypical variant, a favorite of Reiner’s, comes as close as the series would to giving Moore dramatic material to play, as Laura reflects on how she was too young and shallow to really appreciate the poetic letters that a former beau (now a priest) wrote to her years ago.
“The Lady and the Babysitter”
The Petries’ goofy babysitter has a crush on Laura, in an episode that lets Moore hit a lot of notes she doesn’t get to play in scenes with Van Dyke and the other series regulars. Moore seems to be playing her scenes with Roger, the lovelorn teen, as if they’re from his point of view — she’s mature, wise, slightly seductive, and mysterious. It’s a shame the script doesn’t let Moore break the boy’s heart onscreen, but the climactic scene in which Laura and Rob figure out how to handle the problem is a good example of how naturalistic, how devoid of comedic shtick or exaggeration, Moore’s work had become by the series’s midpoint.
“Pink Pills and Purple Parents”
Dick Van Dyke performed a legendary drunk routine in the second season’s “My Husband Is Not a Drunk,” and this episode gives Moore the chance to try out her version, after Laura takes some pep pills to get through a stressful dinner with her irascible in-laws. “We’re going to have some parrots and keys,” she says as she serves dinner. The giggling fits and spacey expressions that ensue are funny, adorable, and weird; it’s too bad Moore couldn’t have taken on the Patty Duke role in Valley of the Dolls.
“Never Bathe on Saturday”
A classic farce in which Laura gets her toe stuck in a bathtub faucet inside a locked hotel bathroom. At first Moore hated this script, because it kept her offscreen for most of the action, but of course the purely vocal performance she delivers from behind the bathroom door is a hilarious catalog of embarrassment and exasperation. Usually the show emphasized Moore’s poise and class, but her sex appeal — and the ability to perceive Laura as a sexual person — were an equally important aspect of the show’s modernness. An earlier episode (“October Eve”) about a nude painting of Laura was conceived because, as writer Sam Denoff explained in Vince Waldron’s The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book, “I figured that everybody wanted to see Mary naked, because I certainly did.” Built around a similarly censor-proof suggestion of offscreen nudity, Reiner’s script for “Never Bathe on Saturday” jabs at male possessiveness (Rob is as anxious about strangers seeing his wife in the altogether as he is about freeing her), but also at the prudishness that kept the Petries from sharing a bed.
“The Curse of the Petrie People”
“Oh, Rob!” is one of those catchphrases that exists more in our collective memory than onscreen, but Moore delivers a solid, understated reading of it in this one. In a loose remake of a first-season episode, Laura drops an unbelievably ugly brooch down the garbage disposal just minutes after her imperious mother-in-law bequeaths the family heirloom to her. At one point there’s a moderately teary apology, but Moore’s reactions to catastrophe in this late episode are more rueful than panicky. By the final season, wearing a new, more chic hairdo, Moore projected a quiet confidence and agency underlying whatever foibles Laura got into, and in this episode that subtext is echoed in the writing (Laura’s efforts to replace the brooch are motivated by empathy, not fear, and the unexpected comedic reversal at the end rewards this impulse in kind).
“Coast to Coast Big Mouth”
Often cited as one of the funniest television episodes of all time, this perennial gives Moore two classic scenes. In one, Laura, flustered during an appearance on a television game show, reveals that her husband’s boss wears a toupee, and in the second she confronts the livid TV host (a manic performance by Carl Reiner). Reiner, addressing a row of now-obsolete wigs, should own this climactic scene, but Moore’s nervous-woman routine ultimately steals the focus away from him. It’s hard not to look at this confrontation between a blustery alpha male and the deferential but, yes, spunky woman who defangs him as a dry run for the dynamic between Moore and her next great leading man, Ed Asner’s Lou Grant.