You're Gonna Make It After All
By Ed Garea and Maureen Porcaro
Of all the television stars who graced our screens, none – none – was as influential as Mary Tyler Moore. In the ‘60s she was a fashion icon, and in the ‘70s she became a role model for young women, helping to create a new definition of American womanhood. And how many sitcom stars have been honored with their own statue in a downtown area of a major city?
Her combination of wholesomeness and sex appeal with precise comic timing reminded many of an updated ‘30s leading lady, such as Myrna Loy or Jean Arthur.
Mary Tyler Moore died on January 25 at the age of 80 in Greenwich, Conn. Her family attributed her death to cardiopulmonary arrest after she had contracted pneumonia.
Her character of Mary Richards, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show became the epitome of the working woman long before the media discovered the concept. Mary Richards was single, over 30, professional, independent, and unlike other single female characters, not obsessed with getting married. She was a not an aggressive trailblazer, but more of a sisterly presence in the office, one who used ingenuity and humor, easing anxieties about the presence of woman in the work force, and at the same time providing a how-to manual in survival and sanity for women in a male-dominated office environment.
The show came along at just the right time, as the large number of women entering the workforce began to spread a feminist consciousness across the country. And the show picked up on it, the issues it raised, and ran with it. Over the course of the show, Mary Richards faced such issues as equal pay, birth control and sexual independence in an era just about ready for them.
Her influence can be seen in almost every female sitcom star that followed her. Tina Fey, for example, admitted in an interview that her acclaimed sitcom, 30 Rock, and her character of television writer Liz Lemon came from watching episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In addition, many real working women noted that Mary’s portrayal of a working woman facing everyday obstacles with compassion and vigor inspired their attitudes at work. It was noted that during the run of her television show the number of women who were studying journalism at college increased radically.
It was a long journey to success for Mary, who was born in Brooklyn Heights on December 29, 1936. Her father, George Tyler Moore, was a clerk, and her mother, Margery Hackett Moore, was a homemaker. Both parents were alcoholics. The eldest of three children, Mary would outlive both her siblings. Her household became so dysfunctional that, while still a child in Los Angeles, she arranged to live with an aunt, rarely seeing her parents.
Moore was 17 when she decided she wanted to be a dancer. She began her television career as a tiny caped elf named “Happy Hotpoint,” dancing on Hotpoint appliances in commercials that aired during the 1950s series Ozzie and Harriet.
In 1955, she married Richard Meeker, a salesman. That same year, she became pregnant, which compromised her effectiveness as an androgynous elf in a fitted costume. Hotpoint let her go after it became too difficult to conceal her pregnancy. After the birth of her son, Richard Jr., in 1956, Moore modeled anonymously on the covers of a number of record albums and danced on various television shows. Turning to acting she had small parts on series like Bourbon Street Beat, 77 Sunset Strip, Steve Canyon and Hawaiian Eye. She attracted attention as Sam, the answering-service girl on Richard Diamond, Private Detective, for she was more heard than seen: the only glimpse viewers had of her character was only in sexy close-ups of parts of her body, including her mouth, her hands and her elegant legs.
She also auditioned for the role of Danny Thomas’s older daughter on his sitcom Make Room for Daddy. However, she was turned down. Thomas, who took pride in his exaggerated features, explained that no daughter of his could have such a little nose.
In 1961, Carl Reiner cast her as Laura Petrie, the wife of television comedy writer Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) in The Dick Van Dyke Show, a weekly sitcom based on Reiner’s own life as a writer for Sid Caesar’s variety series Your Show of Shows. The show was produced by Danny Thomas’s company, and it was Danny himself who recommended Mary for the role, having remembered her from her audition. The role made her popular, both here and abroad. As a comedy duo, Moore and Van Dyke complimented each other perfectly. Creator/producer Carl Reiner remarked that “the fact that Mary and Dick were dancers gave the program a grace that very few programs have. Moore’s portrayal of suburban housewife transformed the concept of the sitcom wife from that of a mere appendage of her husband to an intelligent domestic partner in her own right. In fact, she was the more level-headed of the two. And unlike Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy, Van Dyke’s character was not threatened by his wife’s intelligence or her talents. Along the way, she also became somewhat of a fashion icon when the tight-fitting capri slacks she wore on the program caught on with women all over. The series lasted from 1961 to 1966 and ended at the height of its popularity at the request of Van Dyke. It earned Moore two Emmys.
Moore’s marriage to Meeker ended in 1961, and she met Grant Tinker, an executive at 20th Century Fox, in 1962. They married in Las Vegas that same year.
Now at large, Moore decided to concentrate on films. Before signing on The Dick Van Dyke Show she had a supporting part in 1961’s X-15, directed by Richard Donner, a drama about the development of the supersonic airplane. She signed an exclusive contact with Universal in 1967 and starred with Julie Andrews and Carol Channing in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), a musical comedy set in 1920’s New York. The film did good business, but her follow-ups, What’s so Bad About Feeling Good? with George Peppard, and Don’t Just Stand There! with Robert Wagner (both 1968) were commercial and artistic failures.
In 1969, she starred along with Elvis Presley and Barbara McNair in Change of Habit, a drama that saw Elvis portray a doctor working in the inner city and Mary and Barbara as two gorgeous and glamorous nuns. Also in the cast was future co-star Ed Asner. After the film received disappointing reviews and poor reception at the box office, Moore went back to television. She would not appear in another feature film until 1980.
In 1969, she and and Tinker formed MTM Enterprises, a production company with Moore as its star and Tinker as producer behind the scenes. In 1970, after having appeared earlier in a pivotal one-hour musical special called Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman, she and Tinker pitched a show to CBS, created by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, about a recently divorced woman who was living and working on her own. The network liked it, but insisted she change her marital status on the show from divorcee to a woman who had broken up with her long-time fiancé. Not only was the subject of divorce still taboo on television, but some CBS executives feared that, because the show was going to be shown on CBS, that viewers would assume that Laura Petrie had divorced Rob, an idea that was unthinkable.
On the show, Moore was Mary Richards, a woman who came to Minneapolis and got a job as an associate news producer at WJM, a small television station in Minneapolis. Ed Asner was cast as her boss, Lou Grant, a man tough on the outside, but tenderhearted inside. Gavin MacLeod was Murray Slaughter, the news writer who led a boring life, and Ted Knight was Ted Baxter, the vain, dimwitted anchorman of WJM’s six o’clock newscast.
The show’s female characters were as carefully conceived as the men. Valerie Harper was Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary’s single neighbor who lived upstairs. Cloris Leachman was Mary’s eccentric landlady, Phyliss Lindstrom. As the show progressed, Georgia Engel was brought on as Georgia Franklin, Ted’s girlfriend, and later his wife. Betty White was signed as Sue Ann Nivens, the hostess of “The Happy Homemaker Show.”
At first, the show focused on the relationship between Mary and Rhoda, single women trying to find Mr. Right. But as her office mates became stronger characters, and as Rhoda’s character was spun-off into her own sitcom, the episodes began to revolve more and more around Mary’s life at WJM.
The secret of the show’s success was in its ensemble casting, as it eschewed the rapid-gag format in favor of character-driven humor. Although Moore was the star, not everything exclusively revolved around her. The other characters were strong identities in their own right, and much of the humor capitalized on Mary’s naiveté and timidity. Like Jack Benny, who used his miserliness and vanity as the crux of the honor going on about him, Moore was more often than not the innocent victim caught in situations that arose when her naiveté mixed with enthusiasm.
The best episodes were those that saw Mary often hoisted on her own petard, as in the classic episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” in which Chuckles the Clown, the station’s popular kiddie show host, met his end during a parade in which, dressed as a peanut, he was shucked to death by a rogue elephant. Her co-workers take great delight in the circumstances of his death, cracking terrible jokes that amuse everyone but Mary, who is appalled that they could find his death so humorous. They try to explain that it’s a reaction to those horrible circumstances, but she will have none of it. Later, at Chuckles’s funeral, it’s Mary who can’t suppress her giggling, as all her repressed feelings burst forth when the reverend reviews the life of Chuckles, especially when he quotes the late clown’s motto: “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.” Her performance was a comic tour de force that won the episode’s writer, David Lloyd, an Emmy, one of the 29 the show won over its lifetime, a record that was only broken in 2002 when NBC’s sitcom Frasier won its 30th Emmy.
Death wasn’t the only subject the show tackled with its intelligent humor. Other issues included equal pay for women, divorce, infidelity, homosexuality, premarital sex, and infertility. Mary Richards even breaks an addiction to sleeping pills in one show.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show won the Emmy for comedy show three years in a row, was named as one of the most influential TV shows of all time on numerous lists. In 1977, after the series had run its course, Moore returned in a short-lived variety series, Mary, notable only for having David Letterman and Michael Keaton in its cast. She tried other vehicles, including The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, Annie McGuire and New York News, but she could not duplicate the success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
In the meantime, besides Rhoda, The Mary Tyler Moore Show also spun off the sitcom Phyllis and a newspaper drama, Lou Grant. MTM Enterprises, which was overseen almost exclusively by Tinker, expanded into an industry giant, producing not only the above-mentioned spinoffs, but other such critical and popular hits as The Bob Newhart Show, Newhart, WKRP in Cincinnati, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, The White Shadow, Remington Steele and Rescue 911. (On Broadway, the company produced such plays as Noises Off, The Octette Bridge Club, Joe Egg, Benefactors and Safe Sex.) The logo at the end of each show featured its mascot, a meowing kitten (Moore’s cat Mimsie), an image that brought to mind, and gently satirized, MGM’s roaring lion.
In 1980, Robert Redford approached her about co-starring in his directorial debut, Ordinary People. He told her he thought about casting her after seeing her walking alone on the beach and realized that she also had a serious side. Her beautifully nuanced performance as the cold, guilt-ridden matriarch Beth Jarrett, living a life of denial after the death of her favorite son, won her a Golden Globe award as well as an Oscar nomination.
In the same year, she won a Tony Award for her Broadway performance as a quadriplegic who wanted to die in Whose Life Is It, Anyway?
On the big screen, she starred with Dudley Moore in Six Weeks (1982), and had roles in Just Between Friends (1986); Flirting With Disaster (1996), playing the embarrassing adoptive mother of Ben Stiller’s character (At one point in the film she lifts her shirt to show her son’s girlfriend how a bra should fit.); Keys to Tulsa (1997); Labor Pains (2000); Cheats (2002); and Against the Current (2009).
Moore returned to television in a number of TV movies, including First You Cry (1978), playing great cancer survivor and reporter Betty Rollin; the mini-series Lincoln (1988), where she played Mary Todd Lincoln; The Last Best Year (1990); Thanksgiving Day (1990); Stolen Babies (1993, in which her role as Georgia Tann, the cruel director of an orphanage, won her a sixth Emmy); and Blessings (2003). In 2001, she served as executive producer and star of a macabre television movie, Like Mother Like Son: The Strange Story of Sante and Kenny Kimes. Her turn as the sociopathic killer mom couldn’t have been farther from Laura Petrie and Mary Richards.
She reunited with old co-star Dick Van Dyke in a couple of TV projects: a PBS adaptation of the Broadway hit The Gin Game (2003), and a reprise as Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited (2004).
Van Dyke wasn’t the only old co-star she reunited with on television. In 2000, she and Valerie Harper starred in Mary and Rhoda (ABC), which finds the pair meeting in New York. We learn that Mary Richards-Cronin, who recently lost her husband, went on to work for ABC news and Rhoda Morgenstern-Rousseau went on to become an art photographer in Paris, where she lived with her husband. Mary put her career on hold to raise daughter Rose, who now intends to drop out of school to do stand-up, while Rhoda has just gone through a nasty divorce. In a piece of irony, Rhoda has become her old mother, Ida, constantly butting in on daughter Meredith’s life. The movie was intended as a pilot for a new series, but the ratings nixed any ideas in the bud.
Moore also went on to make several guest appearances in such shows as The Naked Truth (1997) as star Tea Leoni’s mother; The Ellen Show (2001); That ’70s Show (2006) as a TV host; and an episode of Hot in Cleveland (2013), where she reunited with cast members White, Engel and Harper.
She also wrote two memoirs. The first, After All (1995), acknowledged her alcoholism. The second, Growing Up Again: Life, Loves, and Oh Yeah, Diabetes (2009) centers on her life with diabetes. She had developed Type 1 diabetes in her 30s, which was discovered via a blood test after she had miscarried during her marriage to Tinker.
Besides her Oscar nomination, seven Emmy Awards, three Golden Globes and one Tony, the Screen Actors Guild awarded a lifetime achievement award, which was presented to her by old friend Dick Van Dyke. In 1986, she was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. In 1992, she was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
On May 8, 2002, Moore was in attendance when cable station TV Land unveiled a statue in downtown Minneapolis’s Nicollet Mall depicting the moment in the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which she throws her tam o’shanter in the air. (The statue now resides at the city's visitor center pending the completion of mall renovations later in 2017.)
Offscreen, she was a campaigner for diabetes research. She was chairwoman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International and spoke openly about her own struggle with the disease. In 2007, in honor of her support, the JDRF created the “Forever Moore” research initiative that will concentrate on adapting basic research advances into new treatments and technologies for those living with type 1 diabetes.
In her personal life Moore faced more than her share of private sorrow. Her only child, Richard Jr., born in 1956, died at the age of 24 on October 14, 1980, after a sawed-off shotgun with a hair trigger went off in his hands. (The gun model was later taken off the market.)
Her almost 20-year marriage to Tinker came to an end in 1981, although they remained friends. In 1993, she married physician Dr. S. Robert Levine, who she met while he treated her mother in a New York City hospital. The couple shared homes in Manhattan and a farm in upstate New York.
In 1984, Moore entered the Betty Ford Clinic to treat her alcoholism, which began while she was working on The Dick Van Dyke Show. In 2011, she underwent brain surgery to remove a benign tumor. In 2014, friends reported that she was suffering from heart and kidney problems and was nearly blind.
Her only immediate survivor is husband Dr. S. Robert Levine. Former husband Grant Tinker passed away of November 28, 2016.