Sam/Laura/Mary wins write-in as most popular woman

Steve McKerrow

December 25, 1990|By Steve McKerrow

She provided the legs and voice of otherwise unseen secretary Sam on "Richard Diamond, Private Investigator" (1957-59). She was Laura Petrie on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (1961-66). And she gained stardom in her own right as Mary Richards on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (1970-77).

Moore may also be television's most popular woman performer, at least as measured by Media Monitor's recent informal readers' poll. In a Thanksgiving column (inspired by the November death of Eve Arden of "Our Miss Brooks"), readers were asked to write in their votes for favorite females of TV past and present.

Despite a succession of unsuccessful series in recent years, Moore drew the most tallies. Perhaps there is no surprise in that. Her characters' growth, from a literally faceless sex object to a strong-willed homemaker to an independent career woman, parallels a whole gender's experience in recent decades.

What was astonishing, however, is the number of women readers found memorable from TV over the years. A total of about 115 women performers received at least one vote, and they represent shows spanning TV's 40-plus years as a medium of national habit.

The earliest show/star combination to receive votes was actress Gertrude Berg, who played Molly Goldberg in "The Goldbergs." One of TV's first sitcom hits, the show began on radio in 1929 and was brought to the new picture medium in January, 1949. (In addition to votes for Berg, we received a couple for Molly Goldberg, from readers whose memory apparently merged character and performer. The same thing happened, oddly, with Molly Dodd, played by Blair Brown.)

The second highest vote getter was another early TV star, Peggy Wood (although some voted for Peggy Woods) of the series "Mama" (1949-57). Remembered by most readers as "I Remember Mama," the series was based on John Van Druten's play of that title, and was one of the earliest on TV to briefly survive cancellation. According to the reference book "Total Television" (by Alex McNeil), viewer complaints brought the show back from cancellation in 1956, although it lasted just another 13 weeks.

Among current actresses, Sharon Gless of "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill" led the voting, with Candice ("Murphy Brown") Bergen, Phylicia ("The Cosby Show") Rashad, Angela ("Murder, She Wrote") Lansbury and "Golden Girls" Bea Arthur and Betty White among others in current series who received multiple votes. Jane Curtin, whose "Working It Out" was recently canceled by NBC, also drew some votes.

A couple readers apparently never met a female TV star they didn't like. Mrs. James H. Thomas of Baltimore sent in 3 1/2 pages of names, for example, and wrote "I could go on and on -- and have, so I'll stop." Similarly, Alice Hairston of Cleveland (where The Plain Dealer carried the original column) submitted almost 50 names and said that doing so, "bought back many fond memories."

We also asked readers to explain their choices, and Moore's starring role as a single news woman in Minneapolis was often cited.

"Mary Richards is just so many people's favorite woman character in a series," wrote Dorothy Wilding of Greensboro, Md. And Barbara M. Farley of Baltimore took Media Monitor to task for failing to mention Moore in the initial column rundown of potential candidates, asking "how in the world could you omit Mary Tyler Moore?. . . For shame!"

Gless, who was Chris Cagney on "Cagney & Lacey" before her current show, also drew some especially warm responses.

"She has created two very different characters and has made them both very believable," raved Rose Kelly of Baltimore. And Christian Carr of Baltimore said Gless "is funny and makes me laugh, but she is just as successful at making me feel her pain."

It would be great if space permitted running the entire list of nominees, for some forgotten names obviously left their mark on many memories. Instead, we've developed a list of the top 25 vote pollers. And if their memorable shows have not been mentioned yet, they are included below:

1. Mary Tyler Moore.

2. Peggy Wood.

3. Marlo Thomas ("That Girl," 1966-71).

4. Angela Lansbury ("Murder She Wrote," currently).

5. Gertrude Berg

6. Sharon Gless

7. Jane Curtin (also noted for "Kate & Allie," 1984-89).

8. Loretta Young ("The Loretta Young Show," 1953-61, among others).

9. Ann Sothern ("Private Secretary," 1953-57, and others).

10. Lucille Ball ("I Love Lucy," 1951-57, and others).

11. Phylicia Rashad

12. Tracy Ullman ("The Tracy Ullman Show," 1988-90).

13. Lynda Carter ("Wonder Woman," 1976-79).

14. Lindsay Wagner ("The Bionic Woman," 1976-78)

15. Jean Stapleton ("All In the Family," 1971-83).

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