Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia aren’t the only legendary team back on the screen after two decades: The stars of arguably the most beloved sitcom in history — The Mary Tyler Moore Show — have paired up again for the TV movie Payback. And though less fanfare has heralded the reunion of Moore and Ed Asner, star wars of a very different sort were narrowly averted.
Asner, 67, had been searching for a reunion project for some time. Three years ago, he thought he had hit upon the perfect vehicle — a gritty drama about a courageous woman (Moore) who testifies against a rogue cop after she sees him beat up a suspect Rodney King-style; Asner would play the Internal Affairs investigator who talks her into testifying, thus ruining her life. ”The cop decides to exact revenge,” explains Moore, 60, ”and the harassment culminates in his plotting to indict her son for murder.”
Hardly the feel-good reunion fans of Mary Richards and Lou Grant might have hoped for. But that was the point: ”We’re totally different,” says Asner of their characters. ”It’s not a comedy — we’re not even old acquaintances.”
”We were trying not to do a conventional TV movie,” adds Chris Kobin, former vice president of Asner’s production company, Quince. ”And it was tough writing to please Ed and Mary, because they’re both very involved actors.” But Kobin says Asner was happy once an initial rewrite beefed up his do-gooder gumshoe Jack Patkanis — a less squeezably soft version of Grant. ”In Ed’s role there’s a dark undercurrent,” says Kobin, ”and that’s the way it is in life. Everyone has their own agenda.”
Moore’s agenda, upon reading the first draft, was more character development. ”Ed was happy with the crime-drama aspects,” recalls Kobin. ”Mary was interested in the relationships.” And, finding too much Mary Richards in her role and not enough of herself, Moore asked the writers to give her character Kathryn Stanfill more motivation, meaning ”rough edges” and a higher ”guilt factor.” Stanfill, who’d been made a restaurateur, became more career obsessed, and her son more screwed up — a subplot inspired by the actress’ relationship with her own son, Richard Meeker Jr. After the rewrites, her eatery changed too: In keeping with Moore’s animal rights activism, it became vegetarian. ”It’s very Mary,” notes executive producer Kenneth Kaufman.
”Kathryn spends more time with her restaurant than she does with her son,” says Moore. ”As a result he gets into trouble with drugs, and [she] begins to see what went wrong.” As did Moore herself after watching her son battle serious drug problems as a teen, only to clean up his act, then die in a handgun accident in 1980. Since Meeker’s death, Moore — hailed as a ’70s career girl for beating all sexist odds by McCall’s 1996 Rule Breakers Hall of Fame — has regretted putting work above family. ”Ten years ago I would’ve said every woman should work,” says Moore, a recovering alcoholic. ”Now looking back on my relationship with my son, I think that’s wrong. If you’re going to have children, make that your work.”