Michael Dann was not the hero of The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s origin story. In fact, he was something of the villain—the quintessential anti-creative, anti-progressive television executive. He shot down producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns when they pitched their original idea for the show in 1969: Mary would play a divorced woman. Dann, who was obsessed with ratings and with protecting Moore’s image, would have none of it. He invoked the network’s research department findings: “American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a lead of a series any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.”
Bringing all of this up might seem like an odd way to pay tribute to someone who has just died at the age of 94. But what I loved about Dann was that when I interviewed him a few years ago for my book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, he was honest, self-aware, and funny in recalling all of this. He was still scoffing over the annoyances of dealing with comedy writers and all their feelings. But he also understood that, in retrospect, he’d been a little behind the times in writing off the divorce idea. In 1969, he explained, he still thought then that a divorcée was “kind of a loose woman. … I think you could classify me as a prude at that point. I was worried about keeping a perfect image of her.”
He also delivered a lesson for any executives negotiating with “creatives”: “You never are too enthusiastic [about their show] when you’re dealing with them. As a consequence, the creative people think they know everything, but they don’t. While my career depends upon them, at the time they make the deal, they’re the opposition.”
I so appreciated his willingness to share his insights with me long after the fact. And either way, he gave us the Mary we came to love: a single woman getting over a mere breakup, not a divorce.