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John Amos looks back at ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’

John Amos (230497)
John Amos
Mary Tyler Moore (230498)

Iconic television actress Mary Tyler Moore died yesterday in a Connecticut hospital at age 80 following a decades-long battle with diabetes. One of the co-stars of the Emmy-winning “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was John Amos who last year looked back at his early days in television. The show was Amos’ big break as an actor, and although he appeared in only a dozen or so episodes, he said the experience provided impetus for his starring role in “Good Times” and dozens more television, motion picture and stage roles over the years.

Amos’ role on “Gordy” the weatherman at the fictional WJN News team in Minneapolis, Minn., was arguably the first time that an African American performer, as part of a comedic ensemble, was devoid of a stereotypical characterization that was so familiar to television landscape. Gordy was clean cut, handsome, professional and fit in perfectly with the jovial newsroom atmosphere headed by Mary Richards (Moore), Lou Grant (Edward Asner), Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod), Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) and Sue Ann Nivens ( Betty White).

Last year, Amos explained how he got the role as Gordon “Gordy” Howard. Already writing and performing comedy on the “The Leslie Uggams Show” in 1969, Amos said he was approached by two of that show’s producers, Lorenzo Music and Dave Davis, who said they admired how he interacted with the guest stars. They also said they were working on a pilot involving Mary Tyler Moore and thought he’d be right for one of the characters.

“We were having lunch one day,” Amos recalled, “and they said, ‘John, when you act out these sketches with our guest stars, we think you’ve got the chops.’ They told me what they were working on and complimented my work. I just took it as a grain of salt. It sounded too good to be true. But later when ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ was [picked up to become a series], they called me.”

After interviewing with Moore and her husband Grant Tinker, he got the job as Gordy which became a recurring character. Amos said it was a joy to work with Moore. No one on the set, he said, made any attempts to upstage her. “After all, it was the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show,’” he quipped.

“It was a very harmonious set. A wonderful atmosphere,” Amos said. “I felt, for the first time, that I was part of a real, meaningful ensemble. We had a little group going and we all got along great.” Amos said he had no idea that the show would become one of the most acclaimed and popular in television history, noting that “I couldn’t have had better training.”

Gordy’s first appearance was that of a guest character. After shooting, co-creator Alan Burns approached Amos and said “You did well. We’ll see you very soon.” Amos said there were no commitments or promises, but after that he had a little more dialogue. Burns called him a “starker” or as Gavin MacCleod later explained to him, a compliment meaning that he was a competent craftsman at delivering the lines perfectly. Amos said the Gordy character was indicative of the sensibilities of Burns and James Brooks.

“They did not pander to the lowest common denominator in terms of stereotypes or cheap humor,” he said. One day, however, while posing for some still shots, a photographer made the off-color remark: “John, smile so we can see your teeth and we can know who you are.” Amos recalled complete silence on the set. “The next day, that guy was gone never to be seen again. He had been with the show since its inception.”

Amos said he regretted leaving the show, but the offer from Norman Lear to portray James Evans on “Good Times” couldn’t wait. “I had to make a commitment,” he said. “I couldn’t do both shows. It meant more money, but the working conditions were not as … I wasn’t as happy. I’ll leave it at that.”

Of all the episodes with Mary Tyler Moore, Amos said his favorite was one where Ted Baxter found out Gordy had relocated to New York and was making more money than him, complete with a free wardrobe, expense account and chauffeured limousine. “That just about broke Ted’s heart,” the 77-year-old actor laughed. “The time with Mary Tyler Moore was a great experience. I can’t look back on one day on that set when I didn’t spend it laughing or being in a good mood ready to laugh.”