In a medium that thrives on the force of personality — from the authority of a Walter Cronkite, to the wackiness of a Lucille Ball (and everything in between) — Mary Tyler Moore has successfully fashioned a television rarity: the vulnerable, warm, loving, independent woman.
Mary Richards of The Mary Tyler Moore Show on CBS was the levelheaded, believable, educated Everywoman of the 1970s, an updated version of the girl next door who could also, without badgering a viewer with it, spend the night with the guy next door.
In a real sense, she represented America's New Woman in a medium where women were frequently portrayed, especially in comedy series, as one-dimensional figures: happy housewives, vapid virgins, or merry manhunters. Through the warmth of her personality, the independent woman became America’s sweetheart.
"Approachable may be the key word," TV Guide once said in describing Moore and her alter ego, Mary Richards. “Anybody can identify. In television, that's a commodity worth millions.”
The eldest of three children, Moore was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 29, 1937. According to her mother, the child with big brown eyes and long legs was "a pain in the neck to raise, because she wanted to be a dancer and an actress so badly."
When the Moore family moved to Los Angeles at the end of World War II, Mary’s ambitions intensified — so much so that school for her became secondary to ballet lessons, recitals, and dance-class performances at veterans hospitals and local military installations.
“I lived an absolutely normal childhood, except that I was the only girl on the block who never wanted to be a nurse or a teacher," Moore once recalled of her adolescent years. "All I ever wanted to be was a ballet dancer. And it’s a shame, because that kept me from being curious about anything else.”
By the time she graduated from Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles, Mary, at 17, had transformed herself into a professional dancer. After obtaining an audition for a commercial assignment through a friend of her aunt’s, Moore portrayed Happy Hotpoint, a three-inch pixie who helped to sell Hotpoint appliances in a commercial that was telecast on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and other popular shows.
That commercial led to other commercials, chorus-line work on variety shows, and bit parts in numerous series.
In 1959, she landed her first role as a regular on what was to become a highly rated series, Richard Diamond, Private Eye, starring David Janssen. Moore portrayed Sam, the sultry-voiced switchboard operator, seen only from the waist down to show off her shapely legs and unidentified in the show's credit. Moore remained in the anonymous and obviously limited role only one season before leaving the cast to make guest-star appearances on such shows as 77 Sunset Strip and Hawaiian Eye.
At about the same time, she auditioned for the role of Danny Thomas’s daughter in Make Room for Daddy. She didn’t get the part, but two years later Thomas remembered the actress "with the three names” when he was working with producer/director Carl Reiner in helping to cast The Dick Van Dyke Show.
This time Moore did get the part. In 1961, she became Van Dyke’s television wife, Laura Petrie, on a show that turned itself into one of the medium’s major comedy hits. Her work on that program as a bright, somewhat flighty yet steel-minded young housewife garnered her two Emmys for Outstanding Continued Performances and catapulted her to the stardom she has retained ever since.
When the show ended in 1966, Moore moved to the stage, taking on the ill-fated Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Next she starred in such movies as Thoroughly Modern Millie, Change of Habit, and What's So Bad About Feeling Good?
In 1970, she returned to television to star in a series that was to become her greatest triumph. From September 19 of that year to September 3, 1977, The Mary Tyler Moore Show dominated the airwaves, held its own in the ratings stakes, and harvested four more Emmys for the actress.
As enacted by Moore, Mary Richards, the idealized career woman, symbolized the relatively young, gifted American single woman who, while enjoying men, could forge her own way without any man’s help. In an era characterized by the rise of the women’s movement, Mary Richards found herself in the right place (the nation’s living rooms) at the right time.
Mary Richards worked as an associate news producer on Minneapolis’s WJM-TV. Her irascible boss was producer Lou Grant (Ed Asner). Anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), pompous and not especially bright, was the butt of everyone’s jokes. Betty White served the series as man-mad Sue Ann Nivens, hostess of The Happy Homemaker Show. And Valerie Harper functioned as Mary’s best friend, Rhoda Morgenstern, an interior decorator who, unlike Mary, was determined to find a man to marry.
Cloris Leachman and Gavin MacLeod also portrayed characters on the show, and they, like the others, played off the personality of Mary Richards, defining her for viewers, and, in the process, turning Mary Tyler Moore into a national viewing habit.
“It’s hard to be objective about Mary Richards,” Moore once said. "I find she’s so much like me, and I think perhaps I like best her enthusiasm, her vulnerability, and her convictions. She doesn’t have the strength of 10 women. I love her jutting chin and her easily pierced armor. It’s difficult to tell whether it’s me or her I'm describing, but basically what you see is who I am. I'm independent and I do like to be liked. I do look for the good side of life and people. I'm positive and I'm disciplined. I like my life in order, and I’m neat as a pin."
Speaking of Moore as a performer, actor John Astin recently observed, “People love her. Men and women. There’s a certain decency in her that taps a decency in all of us.” The same words could also describe Mary Richards.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show became noted as the first of many successes for MTM Enterprises, the production company that took Moore’s initials as its name and spoofed MGM’s roaring lion by using the logo of a meowing kitten. Partly owned by Moore and established by Grant Tinker, who was then Moore’s husband, MTM went on to produce some of television’s more popular shows, including The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78), Rhoda (1974-78), and Phyllis (1975-77) — the last two being spinoffs from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
In 1978, after The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended its spectacular run in the originals, its star took on a short lived CBS comedy-variety program entitled Mary, which relied largely on topical sketch comedy and a group of repertory players.
Later, she portrayed news correspondent Betty Rollin in the critically acclaimed dramatic special First You Cry. In 1979, Moore returned to the stage to star on Broadway in Whose Life Is It, Anyway? for which she won a Tony Award.
She starred in Ordinary People in 1980, which earned her an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award. She followed that movie with another, Six Weeks. More recently, she starred in the television special Heartsounds (for which she received an Emmy nomination) and the HBO movie Finnegan Begin Again.
This past season she returned to series television as Mary Brenner, Chicago newspaper columnist, on CBS’s new Mary. Like Lucille Ball with her Lucy characters, Moore with her Mary portrayals has become a monument to the medium’s excellence in comedy programing and its capacity to turn personality into metaphor.
“Mary, Mary,” USA Today trumpeted when the latest Mary made its debut last December. “Mary, Mary. Our affection is not contrary.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Mary Tyler Moore's induction in 1986.