Before Candice Bergen on “Murphy Brown,” before Sarah Jessica Parker on “Sex and the City,” before Lena Dunham on “Girls” and Tina Fey on “30 Rock,” there was Mary Tyler Moore paving the way for single womanhood during primetime.
Moore, who died Wednesday at the age 80, didn’t just turn my world on with her smile. Every Saturday night for seven seasons, she enlightened my high-school years with her nuanced yet disarmingly funny portrait of a 30-something single career woman making her way as an associate producer for a Minneapolis TV newsroom on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” And she did it on her own, as the lyrics to the catchy theme song emphasized.
I remember watching the pilot episode when she first faced off with her crusty soon-to-be boss, Lou Grant (Ed Asner), during her job interview. When she balked at answering his questions about her religion and marital status, he tells her, “You know what? You’ve got spunk.” She smiles and says, “Well, yeah.” He then yells, “I HATE spunk!” Who wouldn’t be hooked?
Of all the episodes aired during the show’s run, most Mary fans are fondest of “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” a comedy tour-de-force for the star as she is first appalled by her co-workers’ jokes at the expense of the station’s kid-show personality, who died during a parade while dressed as Peter Peanut after being “shelled” by a rogue elephant. But at a eulogy for Chuckles held at a funeral home, Mary totally loses it and bursts forth with raucous laughter, especially when the reverend breaks into Chuckles’ catchphrase: “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”
As a teenager, Saturday was supposed to be date night, but all too often I was glad to stay at home to watch Mary trade quips with sassy buddy Rhoda (Valerie Harper), have heart-to-hearts with menschy newswriter Murray (Gavin MacLeod) and get exasperated by buffoonish anchorman Ted (Ted Knight). As someone already interested in journalism, this was a portal into my possible future – a grown-up future. And I liked what I saw.
While Marlo Thomas came first with the slapsticky “That Girl” a decade before, such a female creature as Mary Richards was a rarity on sitcoms during the ‘70s, a breath of fresh feminist-era air after a previous decade where actresses either played dutiful housewives (June on “Leave It to Beaver”) or provided male-enticing cheesecake (Ellie Mae on “The Beverly Hillbillies”). Moore herself first found fame as ‘60s suburban wife and mother Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” for five seasons. She not only popularized capri pants as a fashion option, but she and TV husband Van Dyke possessed more of a teasing grownup rapport than other sitcom spouses, one that made you think they might actually, you know, do it despite having the then-required twin beds in their boudoir.
But it is the show that bears Moore’s name that continues to have the most cultural impact. She basically liberated a generation of TV characters who no longer had to be defined by a male companion, including spinoffs from her show like “Rhoda” and “Phyllis” or such hit series as “One Day at a Time,” “Cagney & Lacey,” “The Golden Girls” and “Designing Women.”
Don’t forget that Moore left a considerable impression on the big screen as well. Growing up, I had seen her as a demure flapper overshadowed by co-stars Julie Andrews and Carol Channing in 1967’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and as a nun who goes undercover at an inner-city medical clinic only to fall for a doctor who happens to be Elvis Presley (in his last feature film) in 1969’s “Change of Habit.” Neither movie did her any favors.
But like many performers known for their humor, Moore took a risk by escaping her sweetheart image in 1980’s “Ordinary People,” under the tutelage of first-time director Robert Redford. Her Beth Jarrett was a complicated and controlling WASP-y mother figure who insists on maintaining the façade that everything is OK with her family, despite the fact that her older son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), has tried to commit suicide. The breakfast scene where an unsteady Conrad rejects her offer of French toast – “your favorite” – and Beth’s demeanor oh so slightly stiffens and grows tense as she whisks the plate away and shoves the food down the garbage disposal still haunts me to this day. Never has maternal disappointment been so nakedly exposed.
She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but had the bad luck to go up against Sissy Spacek in her defining role as country singer Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Alas, Moore never found another film lead that so suited her, although she had a ball as Ben Stiller’s pushy adoptive mother, complete with Yonkers accent, in 1996’s “Flirting With Disaster” directed by an up-and-coming David O. Russell.
But if you have never seen it, I would recommend the 1984 TV movie “Heartsounds,” based on a real-life story of a brusque New York City urologist (James Garner) who gets a taste of his own medicine as a heart patient who endures the indignities of the medical care system. Garner and Moore as his dedicated wife avoid sentiment and opt for a sophisticated adult relationship as they both battle to save his life.
When I heard news reports that Moore was gravely ill, I began to remember the memorable visit we had together in 1995 when I interviewed the actress for her first memoir, “After All.” We sat in her bright and airy Fifth Avenue apartment she shared with her third husband, Dr. Robert S. Levine, who was 18 years her junior, sipping Perrier and watching the avid animal rights activist’s golden retriever, Dash, eviscerate a toy squirrel. I had accidentally stepped on Dash while trying to check out the art work on the walls earlier. I shuddered when he let out a yelp, fearing I might get tossed out.
Instead, just as Mary tolerated her outspoken and somewhat klutzy pal Rhoda, she gave me a pass and we chatted like friends. She wasn’t wearing shoes – she had a cut on her foot after getting a pedicure and explained her diabetes might cause complications. We talked about her neighbor Woody Allen (“I read somewhere he is afraid of deer”), the pleasures of living in Manhattan (“It’s one big mall in a way”) and the face lift she had at 43 (“I don’t know very many actresses who have reached their 50s who haven’t had some work done”).
I even got to tell her my favorite Mary Tyler Moore show episode, one that turned out to be her favorite, too: The always put-together Mary, miserable with a cold and her hair an atypical lumpy mess, accepts her Teddy award by weepily announcing, “I look so much better than this.”
When I made a request to see where she keeps the golden M that graced the wall of Mary Richards’ apartment, she gladly took me to the study where I ogled it as if it were the Holy Grail
As her brutally honest autobiography revealed, being Mary off-screen wasn’t always that easy. The Brooklyn native was starved for affection particularly from her father, while growing up in Flushing, N.Y., and later in Los Angeles. She was sexually abused as a child by a neighbor; had two failed marriages, including one at age 18 with “the boy next door” and a 19-year union with TV executive Grant Tinker; battled alcoholism, a condition she hadn’t owned up to before becoming an author; and in 1980 – the same year as “Ordinary People” – lost her only child, Richard, 24, after he accidentally shot himself. She even admitted she cheated her way through high school. On top of that, Moore had to deal with the effects of diabetes from the age of 33 onward.
Basically, the book allowed her to come clean about who she really was. “That is part of what the book is about,” she told me. “Showing other people that you can have faults and weaknesses and pain, and still go on. I’ve gotten gratifying feedback from women like myself who denied their alcoholism for so long because they were so ladylike and all-American. In my admission, they were free to take a long look at themselves.”
Moore’s work would earn her seven Emmys as well as a special Tony for her performance in “Whose Life Is It Anyway” in 1980.
But probably her most treasured honor might have arrived in 2012, when Moore received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild a year after she had elective brain surgery to remove a benign meningioma. Her TV husband Dick Van Dyke stood nearby as her acting peers gave her a several-minute standing ovation. She seemed a little tentative after finishing her brief speech, but Van Dyke gave her a reassuring kiss and all was well.
Despite her achievements, critics could be harsh about her work at times – especially when it didn’t mesh with her perky persona. When her short-lived gritty TV drama “New York News” premiered in 1995, The Washington Post’s Tom Shales griped, “The thought of Mary Tyler Moore sitting on a toilet is upsetting. It’s icky.” But the only critic that Moore wanted to please in her life was her judgmental father, George.
She told me in our interview, “He read the book over the weekend, and he called me and said, ‘Well done, chum.’ And I said, ‘Dad, I’m so glad you’re not upset.’ And he said” – she starts to roar – “I didn’t say I’m not upset. I just said it was very well-written.” ‘
She then added quietly, “That is all I was hoping for.”