Mary Tyler Moore first walked through the doors of Minneapolis’ WJM-TV 50 years ago in September 1970. After deflecting a number of inappropriate job interview questions with humor and grace, she was offered an associate producer position. “You’ve got spunk,” her new boss at the time, Lou Grant, had growled at her. “I hate spunk.”

Ed Asner, who played Lou in the hit sitcom, says it’s sometimes hard to believe so much time has passed since The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted. “It was seven years of delight,” the actor, 90, whose memoir Son of a Junkman: My Life From the West Bottoms of Kansas City to the Bright Lights of Hollywood came out last year, exclusively tells Closer Weekly. “We all loved each other, we all worked hard … it was an ideal situation.”

Another original cast member, Gavin MacLeod, 89, who played head writer Murray Slaughter, agrees the hit ’70s sitcom was a “once in a career” pinnacle. “You know what? Love was all around,” he tells Closer, quoting the series’ theme song. “It was a wonderful atmosphere where people cared. They cared, not only for each other, but about the product. And it starts at the top, which is Mary.”

On-screen and off, the show revolved around Mary, who was a producer with her second husband, Grant Tinker, as well as the star. “She was a great leader. She was always up and always so out for everybody,” says Gavin of the actress, who died in 2017 at age 80. He vividly recalls the day they learned the show was a go. “She turned from the phone and said, ‘Well, kids, you can send out the laundry. They picked us up for a full year!’ That was a great moment.”

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As for Ed, he remembers Mary for her beauty and ambition. “Mary was perfect,” he gushes. “She had the legs; she had a smile that went for miles. She spent her lunches dancing instead of eating. She was a driven creature.”

The series broke ground by including hot-button topics like equal pay, birth control and sexual independence along with the laughs. “The writers were so good. We’d have a table reading and everyone would laugh,” Joyce Bulifant, who recurred as Murray’s wife Marie, tells Closer. “The next day we’d come back and it was even better!”

Inspiration for funny one-liners could come from anywhere. Valerie Harper, who played Mary’s chronic dieter best friend Rhoda Morgenstern, suggested the lines, “I don’t know why I should even bother to eat this. I should just apply it directly to my hips” while holding a piece of candy. “It brought the roof down, and it was never, ever in the script,” says Gavin, who calls Valerie “a major discovery” and a “wonderful, wonderful person.”

Valerie, who died in August 2019 at age 80, never failed to pay her respects to the show and its star. “Getting that job was wonderful,” Valerie told previously Closer in 2014. “I had never done television like that, but Mary was so generous and sweet.”

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Ted Knight, who played blustering newscaster Ted Baxter, also became a star on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “He was just a funny guy,” recalls Joyce, 82, a frequent tennis partner for the actor, who died in 1986. “He would do this crazy serve. I couldn’t return the ball because I was laughing too hard!”

In addition to newcomers, the ensemble made room for veterans like Betty White, who joined the cast as Sue Ann Nivens in 1974. “Betty’s 98 years old [now] and she’s slowed down a bit, but she’s still fabulous,” says Gavin. “She’s one of the funniest, wittiest people and just very, very special.”

Though practical jokes weren’t the norm on the set, laughter was always contagious. “The biggest joke I can remember was the time I was showing off my new toupee,” says Ed. “Gavin, who is quite bald, showed off his. And then John Amos, who we all thought had a full head of hair, whipped off his toupee! Ted and Mary were the only ones without toupees!”

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Building on its early promise, The Mary Tyler Moore Show would last seven seasons, win 29 Primetime Emmys and spawn three spinoffs. “I was jealous for a long period because the girls seemed to get more attention than the boys [on the show]. I swallowed my pride, did my work and eventually the girls got their own series so they were left with the boys,” says Ed, who after the finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show would go on to star in its most successful spinoff, Lou Grant. “It was the producers who thought [The Mary Tyler Moore Show] was tapped for all it was worth,” he says. “Every one of us would have been willing to put in another year.”

For more on the Mary Tyler Moore Show cast, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!