Mary Tyler Moore died today at age 80 of complications from pneumonia. In the headline for her obituary, the New York Times said she “incarnated the modern woman on TV.”.
It wasn’t just her The Mary Tyler Moore Show character of Mary Richards, a single woman working as television-news producer, that broke new ground. In 1961, nine years before her eponymous show began airing on CBS, she caused controversy by demanding to wear capri pants in her role as spirited housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke show. In The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book, Vince Waldron wrote:
The slim-fitting pants were considered so provocative that Mary said she was only allowed to wear them in one scene per show — until the show became a big hit.
Moore won two Emmys and a Golden Globe for acting during her time on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
The series went off the air in 1966. By 1970, when the Mary Tyler Moore Show — created by Moore and her second husband, Grant Tinker — went on, Moore was often clad in pants and pantsuits.
Remembering Mary Tyler Moore with great respect and affection.
R.I.P. #MaryTylerMoore7 https://t.co/6fxiMB810S pic.twitter.com/YAQcsPtH7s
— Carole King (@Carole_King) January 25, 2017
That didn’t mean that TV executives were totally laid back about how they presented women on the small screen. According to the Times, the character of Mary Richards was originally pitched as “a recently divorced woman who was working and living on her own.” Divorce wasn’t shown on network television and, in this case, there were concerns that viewers would see Moore and assume the sitcom character Laura Petrie had divorced her husband Rob. Heaven forfend! As a result, Mary Richards’s backstory was adjusted so that she was still newly single, but after breaking up with a fiancé, rather than a husband.
Moore won another Golden Globe and three Emmys for acting on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, plus a special Emmy for “Actress of the Year” in 1970. In addition, through her and Tinker’s MTM production company, she produced television hits including The Bob Newhart Show, and Mary Tyler Moore Show spinoffs Rhoda and Lou Grant.
Moore’s carefree toss of her hat in the opening credits of her own show became so well-known …
… that Minneapolis — where the series was set — has a hat-tossing Mary Richards statue even though Moore herself was a native New Yorker (a Brooklynite, to be precise.)
After The Mary Tyler Moore Show went off the air in 1977, Moore tried two television variety shows in her name, but neither lasted. She had one big success in a movie with Ordinary People, Robert Redford’s directorial debut. Eschewing the perky comedy that made her famous, Moore played the chilly Beth Jarrett, a woman unable to face the loss of one son in an accident and the attempted suicide of her other son. She was nominated for an Oscar for that role, and won a Golden Globe.
In real life, Moore endured an enormous amount of tragedy and turmoil. As the Times reported, both parents were alcoholics and Moore arranged to live with an aunt while she was still a child. Her younger sister, Elizabeth Moore, died of a drug and alcohol overdose in 1978. Her younger brother, John Hackett Moore, “died of cancer in 1992 after Ms. Moore had assisted him in an unsuccessful suicide attempt,” the Times said. Her only child, Richard Meeker, fought a drug addiction only to die in 1980 when he was 24 after a gun he was toying with went off in his hands. (The gun was later taken off the market because of its instability.)
Moore wrote about her own alcoholism in her 1995 memoir, After All. In 2009, her book Growing Up Again dealt with her 40 years of living with diabetes.
After Ordinary People, Moore both performed and produced on Broadway (winning two Tonys); appeared in movies; had major roles in TV specials (she earned her 7th Emmy in 1993 for Stolen Babies); and made guest appearances on TV series. Her final television appearance was in 2013 on the show Hot in Cleveland, where she was reunited with Mary Tyler Moore Show co-stars Betty White, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, and Georgia Engel.
Betty White, who turned 95 last week, played the sexpot television personality Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show — a Blanche type of character for you Golden Girls fans. In 2008, the two longtime friends presented the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series together. I remember watching that Emmys broadcast and thinking that Moore seemed much more fragile than White, even though she was 15 years younger. That said, I loved that she was in her 70s, flaunting her bare arms in her black gown …
… and I always appreciate safety pin earrings.
Three years after that Emmy ceremony, Moore underwent surgery for a benign brain tumor, and in 2012, before she received her own Screen Actors Guild’s lifetime achievement award, she told the New York Times that diabetes had affected her vision and “if I fall, I generally break a bone.” She’s survived by her third husband, Dr. Robert Levine, whom she married in 1984. According to reports, he was by her side when she died.
Recommended reading and watching:
- Variety’s obituary.
- Ed Asner, who played the boss, Lou Grant, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show remembers Moore for the Hollywood Reporter. (Betty White’s representative told the Hollywood Reporter that she was too upset to make a statement about Moore’s death at this time.)
- Variety picks seven best Mary Tyler Moore show episodes. The list includes the 1976 “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode.
- In the Chuckles episode, Mary Richards scolds her newsroom colleagues for joking about the cause of the clown’s death (he was dressed as a peanut when he encountered an elephant and one thing led to another). However, it is Mary who has an inappropriate laugh attack at the funeral.
- The Wrap writes about Mary Tyler Moore and those famous capri pants.
- EW’s oral history of Ordinary People.
- A clip from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, with Mary Richards declining to make a toast to ‘men’s lib.'”
- Moore was name-checked in a song called “Fuck You,” by Dean and the Weenies. Her name goes so well with “thermonuclear war.”
- Joan Jett played a rock ‘n roll version of the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song for David Letterman.
Finally, if you’re the person who once told me a story about getting stuck in a revolving door with Mary Tyler Moore — please identify yourself! I was literally talking about that three days ago after confronting a heavy revolving door.
Louise Hornor says
Thank you for linking the Joan Jett performance. I had forgotten how great it was to hear that song as a celebration of being kick-ass, and MTM was that, indeed.
Joan Jett and Mary Tyler Moore — who would have thought!
As always, Wendy – you do a great obit. Thanks for this.
We must protect Betty White at all costs!
Claire Dalton Pak says
As always, you’re my first stop for commentary on major pop culture events. This is only the second time I’ve ever cried real tears over a celebrity’s death (Karen Carpenter was the first.) As important as her groundbreaking portrayal of women in the workplace was, I’d hate for people to forget that the MTM show was REALLY funny. I looked at the 7 best episodes list, and it omitted my favorite: “Farmer Ted and the News,” one of the funniest 30-minute sitcoms ever. Watch it if you haven’t seen it; you won’t be sorry. Thanks for writing about one of my favorite-ever actresses.
When I read “Farmer Ted” I IMMEDIATELY knew what episode you were talking about. You’re right — how is that not on the list?!
Claire Dalton Pak says
“Then he did the commercial for that women’s product. I couldn’t tell what it was. I had to ask my wife what they use it for. She wasn’t sure.” Hilarious!