Honoring Two of MTM’s Finest: Burns & Leachman

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week the world bid a sad farewell to two important figures who collaborated on one of the 20th century’s most seminal sitcoms — The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, CBS), the flagship of MTM’s character-driven enterprise — for, as I’m sure you’ve heard, we lost co-creator Allan Burns and star Cloris Leachman.

I won’t spend too much time eulogizing them here — you all know the basics; for instance, prior to teaming with Jim Brooks on Moore’s series, Burns helped develop The Munsters, won an Emmy for the forward-thinking He & She, and spent a half-season on Get Smart (to be discussed next week), while Leachman had a much-awarded career that took her from Broadway (South Pacific) to movies (The Last Picture Show, Young Frankenstein), and, of course, to TV, where she played, among other things, Phyllis Lindstrom on Mary Tyler Moore (and Rhoda and Phyllis).

You can click around this blog to read about my picks for the best episodes featuring this iconic TV character whom they both had a hand in creating. But here’s the place to start: a quick list with 13 of Phyllis Lindstrom’s finest showings — from all three classic MTM series.

Also, I want to share some sitcom rarities with subscribers who comment below to alert me of their interest. I’m offering two great works that you maybe haven’t seen… at least, not lately. In honor of Allan Burns, I’ve got, naturally, something from my beloved He & She (1967-1968, CBS), which has many deserved associations with Moore’s series (see more here). No, I’m not sharing the episode for which he won an Emmy with his then-partner Chris Hayward; that’s already been featured. I’m going to provide another entry they wrote — the series’ penultimate excursion, by which time the show had developed its characters and evolved into a smart, efficient ensemble comedy with realistic leads who could motivate story but with a slightly wacky and decidedly ’60s comic energy. It’s called “Knock, Knock, Who’s There? Fernando, Fernando Who?” and actually features Fernando Lamas, who plays himself when he winds up in Dick and Paula’s apartment while Dick’s away… leading Harry, the paranoid fireman next door, to suspect the worst. Jay Sandrich (later of MTM) directs this installment, first aired on March 06, 1968. Here’s a clip below — the very funny opening scene.

For Cloris Leachman, I want to go in the opposite direction — instead of a show that led to Mary Tyler Moore, a show that came out of it. No, not Phyllis, but The Associates (1979-1980, ABC), which hailed from some of the smart Taxi folks: MTM’s Jim Brooks, Stan Daniels, and Ed. Weinberger. True to form, this was another workplace ensemble effort based on a novel by The Paper Chase’s John Jay Osborn Jr., and the cast included a young Martin Short, along with Tim Thomerson, Murphy Brown’s Joe Regalbuto, and Wilfrid Hyde-White. It didn’t hit the ground running like Taxi (or Mary Tyler Moore), and it didn’t get the chance to improve like even He & She, but there were a couple of really sharp, memorable outings in its brief life, by great writers who knew how to handle strong characters — one of them being “Chuckles Bites The Dust” scribe David Lloyd, who penned an entry guest starring Leachman, donning old lady drag as Hyde-White’s fiancée. It’s “Mr. Marshall’s Love Affair” — directed by Tony Mordente and first broadcast on October 14, 1979. Now, it’s a little sleepy until the human and hilarious final scene, which is enriched by a performance from the grand comic actress at the height of her genius — in her first post-Phyllis sitcom role. She’s remarkable — here’s a taste.



Thank you both for all the laughs! 



Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Get Smart!