Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Late Great Mary Tyler Moore

To paraphrase the words from the theme song to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she could turn the world on with her smile. Ever since I was a lad I was just a little bit in love with Mary Tyler Moore, whether she was Laura Petrie or Mary Richards. And I know I was not alone in just being a little bit in love with her. I think it was true of very nearly every person I know. Other classic sitcom and film stars might have their detractors, but Mary Tyler Moore never seemed to. If America ever had a sweetheart, she was it.

Sadly the past several years Miss Moore's health was not the best. She had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was only 33. Over the past few years she had suffered from heart and kidney ailments, and in 2011 she had a benign brain tumour removed. Today, January 25 2017, Mary Tyler Moore died at the age of 80.  The cause was cardiopulmonary arrest after having contracted pneumonia.

Mary Tyler Moore was born on December 29 1936 in Brooklyn, New York. Her family moved to Queens and, when she was eight years old, her family moved to Los Angeles, California. She was only 17 when she played Happy Hotpoint in a series of commercials for Hotpoint brand domestic appliances. The commercials aired during episodes of the long running sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. She made her debut in a television show as a dancer on an edition of The Eddie Fisher Show. She made her film debut in Once Upon a Horse... (1958) as a dance hall girl. She guest starred on the shows The George Burns Show, Schlitz Playhouse, and Steve Canyon.

In 1959 she received her first recurring role on a show. She played Sam, the sexy operator for Richard Diamond's answering service on Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Viewers never got to see much of Mary Tyler Moore on Richard Diamond, Private Detective, as only her legs and sometimes her hands or mouth would ever be shown. For the remainder of the Fifties she guest starred on such shows as Bronco, Bourbon Street Beat, Johnny Staccato, 77 Sunset Strip, The Millionaire, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Bachelor Father, and Thriller.

It was in 1961 that she began playing one of her two best known roles, that of Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show.  The show was a sharp break from other sitcoms of the era. Not only was the wife of comedy writer Rob Petrie (played by Dick Van Dyke) stylish, fashionable, and attractive, but she was not afraid to speak her own mind. The Dick Van Dyke Show prove to be a hit and has persisted in reruns ever since. For the rest of the Sixties Mary Tyler Moore appeared in the films Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), Don't Just Stand There (1968), What's So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968), and Change of Habit (1969).  In 1969 she appeared in the TV special Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman, on which she got to show off her song and dance skills. 

It was also in 1969 that Mary Tyler Moore founded MTM Enterprises with her then husband Grant Tinker. The company's first show would be The Mary Tyler Moore Show, on which she played the other of her two best known roles, that of Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary Richards was an independent, liberated woman with a sisterly quality, not to mention plenty of spunk. Like The Dick Van Dyke Show before it, The Mary Tyler Moore Show proved to be a hit upon its debut in 1970 and has persisted in reruns ever since. As to MTM Enterprises, the company would produce several other classics, including The Bob Newhart Show, Lou Grant, WKRP in Cincinnati, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and Newhart.

Mary Tyler Moore continued to star in The Mary Tyler Moore Show for much of the Seventies. In 1978 she starred in a short-lived comedy-variety series titled Mary. In 1979 she starred in another short-lived comedy variety show called The Mary Tyler Moore Hour. In the film Ordinary People (1980) she played an  emotionally withdrawn, angry mother who had lost one of her sons in a drowning. It was as far from Laura Petrie or Mary Richards as one could get. For her role, Miss Moore received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She also appeared on Broadway in a revival of Whose Life is it Anyway?.

In the Eighties Mary Tyler Moore starred in the short-lived sitcoms Mary and Annie McGuire. She played Mary Todd Lincoln in the mini-series Lincoln. She appeared in the TV movies The Last Best Year and Thanksgiving Day. She appeared in the films Six Weeks (1982) and Just Between Friends (1986).  She appeared on Broadway in Noises Off, The Octette Bridge Club, Joe Egg, Benefactors, Sweet Sue, and Safe Sex.

In the Nineties she starred in the drama New York News. She appeared in a few episodes of the comedy The Naked Truth. She guest starred on the show Fraiser and was a guest voice on King of the Hill. She appeared in the TV movies Stolen Babies,Stolen Memories: Secrets from the Rose Garden, and Payback. Miss Moore appeared in the films Flirting with Disaster (1996), Keys to Tulsa (1997), and Labour Pains (2000).

In the Naughts Miss Moore appeared in the films Cheats (2002) and Against the Current (2009). She appeared in the TV movies Miss Lettie and Me, The Gin Game, Blessings, and Snow Wonder. She appeared in the TV reunion special The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited. She guest starred on That '70s Show and Lipstick Jungle. In the Teens she guest starred on Hot in Cleveland, which would be her last appearances.

It is difficult to sum up just how important Mary Tyler Moore was to television history and to American popular culture. Over the years various women have been called "the First Lady of American Television," including Ruth Lyons, Betty White, and Lucille Ball. That title could also be applied to Mary Tyler Moore, who starred in two highly popular shows that remain extraordinarily popular to this day. She certainly was America's Sweetheart. Men loved her. Women loved her. She was the crush of many a little boy and a role model for many a little girl. It would be difficult to find another woman in American television who had quite the same impact as Mary Tyler Moore.

Much of the reason for Mary Tyler Moore's impact was that her two most important roles reflected the changes American women were undergoing at the time. Laura Petrie was a sharp break from previous housewives on American sitcoms of the past. She was spirited, strong willed, and very much her husband Rob's equal. It was a rare thing for Rob to make a decision without her. On those few times that they disagreed, Rob still respected her. Even her wardrobe was a sharp break from housewives in the sitcoms of the Fifties. Laura did not run around the house in prom dresses, pearls, and high heels. She wore Capri pants and flats. Laura was extremely attractive, independent, and intelligent, a housewife as never had been seen before on American television.

If Laura Richards was a sharp break from women in earlier sitcoms, Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was even more so. Like many women in 1970, Mary Richards was a part of the American work force. What is more, she held a job of considerable responsibility--she was originally an associate producer on WJM's Six O'Clock News (she was eventually promoted to producer). Mary was independent, single, and not particularly interested in getting married and having children. She was strong-willed while still remaining compassionate. Mary Richards was not the first career woman on television (that would be Ann Sothern as Susan Camille "Susie" MacNamara on Private Secretary), but she was the one who had the most impact.

Of course, Mary Tyler Moore played many more roles than Laura Petrie and Mary Richards. She played the sweet but naive Dorothy Brown, Millie's friend, in Thoroughly Modern Millie. She gave an incredible performance in Ordinary People. She played Mary Todd Lincoln in the mini-series Lincoln, for which she was nominated for another Emmy. Although best known as Laura Petrie and Mary Richards, Mary Tyler Moore was a versatile actress who could play nearly any role. It is little wonder that she was nominated for Emmy Awards 15 times and won seven of those 15, not to mention receiving an Oscar nomination.

While Mary Tyler Moore was a great actress, she was also a great dancer. Indeed, she entered show business as a dancer. Miss Moore's talent as a dancer was displayed on The Dick Van Dyke Show, not to mention various specials and her variety shows. If Mary Tyler Moore had been born in an earlier era, I do not think it would be too far fetched to say that she would have been a star of Hollywood musicals. She not only had acting talent, she was an incredible dancer as well.

In the end it is difficult to sum up the importance of Mary Tyler Moore to American television and American popular culture. Very few women (or very few men, for that matter) were as pivotal as she was in American television history. It was not simply that she starred in two shows that are still incredibly popular, but also that she played groundbreaking characters who changed the rules of American television. Quite simply, Mary Tyler Moore was a woman of incredible talent who changed American television forever.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

Thank you for a lovely and informative article, and for reminding me of The Gin Game. It was such a treat to see Mary and Dick in roles other than Laura and Rob. It was a genuine testament to their ability as actors.