MOORE, MARY TYLER (1936– ) Actress
In the television characters Laura Petrie and Mary Richards, Mary Tyler Moore helped define the modern American woman of the 1960s and 1970s. Born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 29, 1936, she had a difficult childhood hampered by an alcoholic mother and emotionally distant father. Moving to Los Angeles when she was eight, Mary dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. At 18, Moore married Dick Meeker, a salesman. At about the same time, she landed her first job, a series of appliance commercials in which she portrayed a dancing fairy named “Happy Hotpoint.” She soon had to be replaced when she grew too obviously pregnant to wear her tight costume. In 1955, she gave birth to a son, Richard.
In 1959, Moore was cast in her first television series, Richard Diamond, Private Detective (1957–60), as Sam, Diamond’s receptionist. To give the character an air of mystery, only her legs were seen on screen. Feeling unchallenged, Moore left the series and began making television guest spots. She auditioned for a variety of series roles, including that of Laura Petrie, the wife of comedian Dick Van Dyke’s character in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–66). With an engaging blend of wholesomeness and sexuality, Moore’s Laura became an idealized version of a 1960s housewife. Although only 23 when the series began, Moore displayed a keen comic timing that allowed her to hold her own with her far more experienced costars. Her performance won her two Emmy Awards. During the series’ fiveyear run, Moore divorced Meeker and married television executive Grant Tinker. Also in this period, a routine blood test revealed that Moore suffered from diabetes. She has since been an active advocate for diabetes research and a chairperson for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. When The Dick Van Dyke Show ended, Moore struggled to find a successful vehicle in theater and film. She was cast opposite Richard Chamberlain in a stage musical of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1966), but the show closed soon after it opened. Moore was also ill-served by weak ingenue roles in the films Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and A Change of Habit (1969). Moore returned to the small screen in 1969 to cohost the television special “Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman, Mary Tyler Moore.” Its positive reception led CBS to offer Moore a 13-episode contract for a new comedy series. She accepted on the condition that she and Tinker would produce the show through their company, MTM Enterprises.
With the help of writers Allan Burns and James L. Brooks, they created The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–77). Moore played Mary Richards, a woman in her thirties who, escaping a bad romantic relationship, finds a job as an assistant news producer at Minneapolis television station. Like The Dick Van Dyke Show, Moore’s series depicted her home life and work life, giving an equal emphasis to each. The series was an immediate hit. It also struck a cultural chord, as one of the first portrayals of a career woman who enjoyed her job and had no overriding desire to get married. As TV Guide declared in 1973, “Thirty-three, unmarried and unworried—Mary is the liberated women’s ideal.”Moore was also surrounded by a talented cast including Ed Asner as her crusty boss Lou Grant, Valerie Harper as her witty neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern, and Gavin MacLeod as her caustic coworker Murray Slaughter. Much of the show’s success was due to the performers’ and writers’ ability to fiesh out these characters with concerns and anxieties that matched the tenor of the time. Several of the characters, including Lou Grant and Rhoda Morgenstern, were so embraced by the television viewers that MTM spun them off into successful series of their own. Moore chose to end the series in 1977, when it was still highly popular. She then made two efforts revive the variety show format, Mary (1978) and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour (1979), but audiences seemed to want to see her only as Mary Richards.
Though short-lived, Mary is remembered for introducing viewers to newcomers David Letterman, Michael Keaton, and Swoosie Kurtz. Beginning in the late 1970s, Moore worked to establish herself as a serious actress. In the television movie First, You Cry (1978), she won an Emmy Award for her portrayal of a breast cancer survivor. On Broadway, she took over the role of an angry quadriplegic in Whose Life Is It Anywayfi (1979) and received a special Tony Award for her performance. On film, she delivered another tour de force, playing an emotionally dead mother in Ordinary People (1980). When casting her, director Robert Redford said he wanted to show the world the “dark side of Mary Tyler Moore.” For the role, she earned an Oscar nomination.
These professional successes coincided with personal troubles. In 1978, Moore’s sister died of a drug overdose, and in 1980, she and Tinker were divorced. The same year, her son, Richard, died from an accidentally self-infiicted gunshot wound. Moore’s life took a turn for the better in 1982 when she met and married Robert Levine, a cardiologist. He helped convince her to get treatment for alcohol abuse at Washington, D.C.’s Betty Ford Clinic in 1984. Four years later, Moore became one of the wealthiest women in show business when she sold her share of MTM Enterprises for an estimated $113 million.
Moore appeared in three more television series—Mary (1985), Annie McGuire (1988), and New York News (1995)—but each was quickly canceled. She was better received in television movies, including Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988) and Stolen Babies (1993), for which she won her seventh Emmy. Critics also hailed Moore for her portrayal of Ben Stiller’s neurotic mother in the comedy Flirting with Disaster (1996). A 1998 reunion with Valerie Harper on The Rosie O’Donnell Show convinced Moore that it was time to revive the Mary Richards character. Two years later, she and Harper starred in the television film Mary and Rhoda. The movie received a lukewarm response, but it did little to tarnish Mary Richards’s status as one of television’s most beloved characters.
Alley, Robert S. Love Is All Around: The Making of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. New York: Delta, 1989.
Moore, Mary Tyler. After All. New York: Putnam, 1995.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Dick Van Dyke Show Box Set. Diamond Entertainment, VHS, 1997.
Ordinary People (1980). Paramount, DVD/VHS, 2001/1996.
The Very Best of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. New Video Group, VHS, 1998.