Many of us are still reeling from the passing of both Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds, so it came as a shock to lose another iconic female performer, Mary Tyler Moore, on Wednesday, January 25. Moore became a staple on television through her work on classic sitcoms The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, leaving audiences with indelible images of strong, smart, funny women. Moore also made forays into films and the stage, but the roles of housewife Laura Petrie and working girl Mary Richards defined Moore’s talents and made her a true icon.
Moore was born on December 29, 1936 in Brooklyn Heights, but her family moved to California when she as 8. As an adult Moore spoke of her imperfect family. Both parents were alcoholics, she lost a sister to the disease, a brother to cancer, and she herself admitted she was an alcoholic. But as a child, she chose to live with an aunt and only saw her parents on special occasions.
At 17, she won the role of Happy Hotpoint, a dancing elf who appeared in TV ads for Hotpoint appliances. When she became pregnant in 1955 after marrying salesman Richard Meeker, she had to give up the job which required her to wear a fitted body stocking. After her son’s birth (sadly, he died in 1980 while handling a gun with a hair trigger), Moore took to acting scoring small parts on TV in Bourbon Street Beat, 77 Sunset Sttrip, Steve Canyon and Hawaiian Eye. Her first big series break came as the receptionist on Richard Diamond: Private Detective, yet no one ever saw her face. The character was mostly just seen in close-ups of her legs and other body parts.
Moore was up for the role of Danny Thomas’ daughter on Make Room For Daddy, but Thomas took one look at her nose and said it was too small to belong to a member of his family. As Moore’s marriage was ending in 1961, she won the role of Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, hand-picked by creator Carl Reiner who said the moment she walked into the office and spoke, he knew she was the one for the role. Laura was a bit of a trailblazer for housewives of that era, often refusing to walk around the Petrie house in a dress and pearls. Moore’s insistence on wearing capri pants put CBS’s head honchos in a bit of a tizzy, but after making sure the pants were too sexy (one source claims the pants could not “cup her buttocks”) everyone was okay with the choice.
After Van Dyke made the decision to end the show in 1966, Moore turns to film with peformances in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Don’t Just Stand There and
The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted in 1970 and became one of CBS’ biggest hits, anchoring the Saturday night schedule (yes, networks actually aired new, original shows on Saturdays) which included M*A*S*H, All in the Family, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show. Moore’s role of the TV news producer broke new ground for women in television and influenced many actresses who followed, including Tina Fey who based her 30 Rock character Liz Lemon on Mary Richards. Moore, while the central star of the show, surrounded herself with a supremely talented group of actors including Ed Asner, Gavin MacLeod, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Ted Knight and Betty White. Their characters revolved around Mary Richards, usually getting the laughs to Mary’s harried producer, but Mary delivered many of the show’s funniest moments as well. It was a true ensemble cast that gave everyone a chance to shine, and Moore won four of her seven Emmys for the role (the show itself earned 29 during its seven year run).
As with Laura Petrie, Moore ran into some trouble with the CBS suits in bringing Mary Richards to life. The original concept was that Mary was a recently divorced woman making her way into the world (hence the iconic theme song’s “you’re gonna make it after all” lyric), but divorce was still taboo on television even in 1970, and the executives also worried that TV audiences would think Laura Petrie had divorced Rob so they altered the character to have recently broken an engagement and history was made as a stong, single woman made her way into the workplace in a substantial position, not just as a secretary.
As Moore and company decided to end the show in 1977 after seven seasons, Moore once again turned to movies and the stage, looking for roles to differentiate herself from the sunny Mary Richards. Her most prominent part came in 1980 as the hard, guilt-ridden mother in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. The role brought Moore a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination. It was at this time that Moore admitted to her drinking problem, which started while filming The Dick Van Dyke Show, and she entered the Betty Ford Center in 1984. Moore had also been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was in her 30s, and underwent surgery to remove a benign tumor from her brain in 2011.
Moore did attempt to return to series television, first with the notorious variety show Mary that was cancelled after three episodes (but introduced audiences to Michael Keaton and David Letterman), and again with another variety-comedy show The Mary Tyler Moore Hour which ran for 11 episodes. After her role in Ordinary People, Moore headed to Broadway as a quadriplegic who wanted to die in Whose Life Is It, Anyway?, winning a Tony Award in the process.
Moore did have some success on television with made-for-TV movies including First You Cry as a breast cancer survivor, Gore Vidal’s Lincoln as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Stolen Babies as the cruel director of an orphanage for which she won another Emmy. In 1996 she played Ben Stiller’s adoptive mother in Flirting With Disaster, and in 2001 she produced and starred in the television movie Like Mother Like Son: The Strange Story of Sante and Kenny Kimes, and returned to the role of Mary Richards in the TV movie Mary and Rhoda which was a more melancholy take on the characters later in life. In 2003, she reunited with Van Dyke for a PBS presentation of the stage play The Gin Game and again in 2004 for the special The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited.
Other notable TV appearances include a TV host on three 2006 episodes of That ’70s Show, and two guest appearances on Lipstick Jungle. In 2011, Moore shared a jail cell as Diane with Betty White’s Elka on Hot in Cleveland and then reprised the role in 2013 where she was reunited with her other Mary Tyler Moore Show co-stars Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, and Georgia Engel. In 2012, the Screen Actors Guild honored Moore with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Moore divorced her husband and MTM Enterprises partner Grant Tinker in 1981 and married Dr. Robert Levine in 1983. Moore was also the chairwoman of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, an outspken proponent of animal welfare, and had established funds for arts scholarships. Moore and Mary Richards are also enshrined in downtown Minneapolis by a statue striking the famous pose of Mary tossing her hat into the air.
Moore had just turned 80, and her family said her death was cause by cardiopulmonary arrest after she had contracted pneumonia. Mary Tyler Moore may be gone, but her indelible performances will live on and should be referenced by any young actress looking for a strong female role model.
Essential Mary Tyler Moore episodes
The Dick Van Dyke Show Season 2, Episode 20: “It May Look Like a Walnut” — Rob watches a scary movie before bed and has nightmares about aliens, evil walnuts and eyes in the back of the head. Laura is appropriately menacing and earns a huge laugh as she glides out of a closet, riding a wave of walnuts.
The Dick Van Dyke Show Season 4, Episode 27: “Never Bathe on Saturday” features Laura trapped in a bathtub for the majority of the episode, her big toe stuck in the faucet. Moore is actually off screen for most of the episode, but the delivery of her dialog is perfection.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 1, Episode 1: “Love Is All Around” is the perfect introduction to a new cast of TV characters, taking us from Mary Richards’ new apartment to her new job at WJM, doing all she can to win over gruff boss Lou Grant. As he finally relents, he tells Mary, “You’ve got spunk.” Pleased with herself, he quickly deflates her with, “I HATE spunk.” And a friendship is born.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 3, Episode 23: “Put On a Happy Face” — Mary Richards is up for a Teddy Award, but everything that can go wrong on the day of the ceremony does, from a sprained foot to an awful cold that results in a weird “hair hump” in her usually sleek ‘do.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 5, Episode 1: “Will Mary Richards Go To Jail?” — An essential episode particularly in today’s political climate in which Mary refuses to name a source for a news story and ends up in jail.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 6, Episode 7: “Chuckles Bites the Dust” — WJM’s kiddie show host dies in a freak accident — shelled by an elephant while dressed as a peanut — and the station’s staff can’t help themselves from making irrevernt jokes at the clown’s expense. Mary is horrified by the behavior, telling everyone to show some respect but at the funeral the absurdity of the situation (and the cleverly written eulogy) causes Mary to break down in gales of laughter much to her co-workers’ horror.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 7, Episode 22: “Mary’s Big Party” — Throughout the run of the series, Mary Richards was famous for throwing the worst dinner parties imaginable. But this time was going to be better because Johnny Carson is going to be her guest. And then the city is hit with a blackout. The majority of the episode is filmed in the dark, with the only light coming from the window. Carson is heard but never seen.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 7, Episode 24: “The Last Show” — The WJM staff gets the news that the station is under new ownership and everyone’s jobs are on the line. Everyone is certain buffoonish anchorman Ted Baxter will get the ax, but he’s the only one who doesn’t get fired. The final scene of everyone saying goodbye in a group hug is still one of the most heart-wrenching and hilarious finales ever.
Featured Image by Daniel Nolen.