At the end of the last show, we had a party, with food and drinks, an all-out festivity. Everyone talked and took pictures, said good-bye, we signed our autographs for each other. We were like a sorority, a fraternity. We belonged to each other. When we ran into each other later on, even though time had passed by, we were just as familiar. "Hi. Well, you look old," one might say. "Yeah, you look old, too," the other would reply. Then we'd both laugh.
So the fervent years on The Mary Tyler Moore Show—the portraying of dear, unbridled Phyllis and the care and support of Valerie Harper—brought a welcome and significant reward.
The success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show impelled the producers to create a spin-off called Phyllis, in which I starred. It lasted two wonderful years (1975–1977). I loved doing the show, and I loved every single cast member.
The show was a hit from the beginning, and the series pilot was hilarious. In that first episode, my character, Phyllis, goes to an employment agency and is interviewed by Doris Roberts. She asks me what skills I possess. I inform her that one of my major talents is knowing which wine goes best with every sort of meal. As she continues to question me, she suddenly realizes that she wants that job. So right there, in the middle of the interview, she puts down her pen, opens the bottom desk door, grabs her purse, and rushes out to get the job herself—while I sit waiting.
One thing was missing in the show—a person for me to bump against, to compete with, the way I did with Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Valerie Harper and I were perfect adversaries on the MTM landscape; each was totally intolerant of the other's views, and that made great comedy.
There were other holes in Phyllis. In the two-year period that the show aired, three members of the cast died. In 1975, when we were starting our fourth episode, Barbara Colby was murdered. She was only thirty-five years old and had appeared with me in one of my best TV films, A Brand New Life. She and a friend were shot inside a parking area; Barbara died instantly.
In December 1976, Judith Lowry, who played eighty- six-year-old Mother Dexter, died right after the episode in which she married her ninety-two-year-old boyfriend, Arthur, played by Burt Mustin. Two months later Burt Mustin was gathered. It was this combination of things that, I think, ended our run in 1977.
In 1986 Charlotte Rae had reached her endpoint in the TV series The Facts of Life. The girls with whom she had started the show had by then grown up quite a bit, and Charlotte wasn't as comfortable with the new issues she faced as she had been with the old. I was approached by the producers of the show to replace Charlotte. I hadn't seen the show, and my initial reaction was not immediately positive. However, after watching the show and considering what I could do with the role, I said yes.