Tribute: Mary Tyler Moore

Posted on January 25, 2017 at 3:56 pm

She could turn the world on with her smile. She could take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile. We have lost one of television’s brightest lights, Mary Tyler Moore, who has died at age 80.

Mary Tyler Moore starred in two of the most beloved and most influential series in television history, but in one of her earliest appearance in the then-new medium of television, you never saw her face. As Sam, secretary to detective “Richard Diamond” (David Janssen), the camera stayed on her legs, hands, and mouth. She also performed as the sprite Happy Hotpoint in appliance commercials.

When she was cast as Laura Petrie in “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” created by Carl Reiner and based on his experiences as a writer for Sid Caesar’s variety show, it was the rarest kind of magical pairing. Rob and Laura Petrie were a new kind of married couple in television sitcoms. They were gorgeous, sophisticated, and obviously crazy about each other. Their chemistry perfectly suited the superb writing on the show, and it is still my all-time favorite series. Moore was a trained dancer, and the Petries danced together in many of the most beloved episodes.

Some of the episodes involved Rob or Laura getting into trouble, often featuring Moore’s “Oh, Rob!” My favorite episode is “Snoopynose,” where Laura can’t resist opening the mail addressed to Rob. I also love the one where she has to admit that she lied about her age when they got married and the one where she accidentally admits on television that Rob’s boss wears a toupee. But any episode is worth watching and they are all available on Hulu and on cable television.

Moore returned to television with one of the most iconic television series of the 1970’s, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” where she played a single woman who has to “make it on her own” as a news producer on a small station in Minneapolis. YouTube has a wild assortments of home-made videos of people re-enacting the opening sequence, which ended with Moore throwing her hat in the air. There’s even one from Oprah, one of the series’ biggest fans, who says Moore’s character inspired her to go into television journalism.

Moore played Mary Richards, an independent single woman unseen before on television (it was shocking when she acknowledged being on “the pill” in one episode). The show had one of the best casts in television history, with Ed Asner as Mary’s crusty boss, Lou Grant, Cloris Leachman as her bossy landlady Phyllis, and Valerie Harper as Rhoda, her best friend. All had spin-off series. Also in the cast: Ted Knight as the dimwitted anchor, Ted Baxter, Georgia Engel as his girlfriend, Georgette, and Betty White as the station’s cooking and household hints show, Sue Ann Nivens.

One of the best-remembered episodes is “Chuckles the Clown Bites the Dust,” where the newsroom staff attends the funeral of the station’s children’s television host. It is both hilariously funny and very perceptive about grief and loss. TV Guide picked it as the third best television episode of all time.

The last episode of the series featured a group hug that seemed to embrace us all.

Moore also appeared in movies like “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Flirting With Disaster.” Her most memorable performance was in “Ordinary People.” Director Robert Redford saw something in the former Happy Hotpoint and cheery sitcom star that no one else had and picked her for the role of the mother who could not express her feelings about the loss of one son and the struggles of the other. When Entertainment Weekly did an oral history of the film, Moore and Redford spoke about the decision to cast her.

ROBERT REDFORD: At that time I had a place in Malibu, and it was winter and I was sitting there looking out on the beach. I saw this lonely figure all wrapped up and walking slowly. The figure looked sad. On closer examination I saw it was Mary Tyler Moore—America’s sweetheart. She was probably just cold, but the sadness hit me and stuck with me when I began casting. I went to see Mary and her husband, Grant Tinker….She had only done these bright, happy things, so I felt pretty awkward going in there and suggesting she play a darker character. But she was very excited and wanted to do it.

MARY TYLER MOORE: Redford was warm and funny and very charming. He told me I was the one whose face he saw as he read the book. Beth was the character he said he most cared about, and he wanted her portrayed with sensitivity. And he wanted me. This was Robert Redford. How could I say no?

Virginia Heffernan wrote in her perceptive tribute in the New York Times:

The influence of Ms. Moore’s Mary Richards can be seen in the performances of almost all the great female sitcom stars who followed her, from Jennifer Aniston to Debra Messing to Tina Fey, who has said that she developed her acclaimed sitcom “30 Rock” and her character, the harried television writer Liz Lemon, by watching episodes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Many nonactresses also said that Ms. Moore — by playing a working single woman with such compassion and brio — inspired their performances in real life.

Moore went from pushing the boundaries of television by wearing Capri pants (the network executives wanted her to look like the other TV moms, who did housework in dresses and pearls) to pushing the boundaries by portraying an independent woman with a satisfying career and a full life without a boyfriend. She was a gifted comic performer because she was a great actress. May her memory be a blessing.

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