Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Mary Tyler Moore Was Twice a TV Icon

Mary Tyler Moore in her self-titled TV show.

Mary Tyler Moore died six years ago today in Connecticut.  The star of two of televisions most beloved, iconic, and influential sit-coms, a shrewd businesswoman and powerful producer, Oscar nominee for a type cast shattering dramatic role, philanthropist, activist, and feminist was 80 years old.  She had been suffering complications of Type 1 diabetes in recent years which had left her nearly blind.  Few actresses have been as loved by fans and show business insiders alike,

Moore was born on December 29, 1936 to a comfortably middle class Catholic family in Brooklyn, New York.  When she was eight years old the family moved to Los Angeles where she decided to become a dancer at age 17 while attending Immaculate Heart High School in Los Feliz, California.

Mary as the dancing elf Happy Hotpoint in Ozzie and Harriet commercials.

She got her first break as Happy Hotpoint, a tiny dancing elf on appliance commercials aired during broadcasts of the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.  She auditioned for the role of Danny Thomass oldest daughter in Make Room for Daddy but was turned down because “no daughter of mine could have a nose that small.”  She became the sultry voiced receptionist on Richard Diamond, Private Detective who was only shown from the waist down featuring Moore’s shapely dancer legs

By the late ‘50s Moore was appearing regularly as a guest star in numerous TV series including, Bourbon Street Beat, 77 Sunset Strip, Surfside Six, and Hawaiian Eye—all detective shows from the Warner Bros. assembly line—as well Wanted Dead or Alive, Steve Canyon, Thriller, and Lock-Up.  Finally it was Danny Thomas, Sheldon Leonard’s partner in the production company who remembered the “girl with three names” and recommended her to him for the new show he was developing with writer/comedian Carl Reiner.

The Dick Van Dyke Show, which premiered on CBS on October 3, 1960 was something different—it split its time and attention between Rob Petries—Van Dyke—job as head writer of a comedy/variety show and his home in suburban New Rochelle, New York with his beautiful and somewhat neurotic young wife, Laura.  In this it echoed the show biz/domestic split of the classic I Love Lucy and Thomas’s Make Room for Daddy.  The couple did have a child, a grade school age boy named Ritchie, but plots seldom revolved around him and he did not even appear in many episodes.  At home the story was all about Rob and Laura, played by raven-haired Mary Tyler Moore.

Although Van Dyke had a certain youthful Midwestern charm, Moore was noticeably younger than her husband which was explained in backstory episodes showing Rob meeting her while serving as a sergeant in an Army entertainment troupe and she was a 17 year old dancer.  That background also allowed more to dance in the series, both in the living room of their home and with other cast members in productions for the mythical Allen Brady Show.  It also showed off her long legs, but not as on Richard Diamond in short skirts.  Instead, they were tightly encased in capri pants, a choice Moore herself insisted upon because unlike previous domestic icons on TV like Harriet Nelson or Donna Reed, “real housewives don’t vacuum in full skirted dresses and heels.”  Sponsors and the network were mortified and fearful but Moore took the considerable risk of sticking by her guns.  It was a modest but real assertion of independence and even feminism.  Women, it turned out, loved the pants and they became a fashion rage.  As for the men, they thought they looked just great on her despite—or because of a “certain cupping under” which emphasized the shape of her butt

                   Mary as Laura Petrie with Dick Van Dyke in those practical but sexy Capri pants and flats.

The show ran for 5 seasons and could have gone on, but Van Dyke wanted to concentrate on his increasingly successful movie career which already included Bye, Bye Birdie and Mary Poppins.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was nominated for 25 Primetime Emmy Awards and won 15 including a nod to the program as Best Comedy and Best Achievement in Comedy, for Reiner as a writer and producer, for Jerry Paris as a director, and to all  the principal cast members.

In 2002, it was ranked at 13 on TV Guides 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.  And has been in continual run in syndication or on basic cable since its first run.

During the run of the show Moore married CBS producer Grant Tinkler.  It was her second marriage.  The first to the “the boy next doorRichard Carleton Meeker in 1955 produced a son, Richard Jr.  That marriage ended in divorce in 1961.  She married Tinkler a little more than a year later.

Moore played a nun and Elvis Presley played a doctor with mixed feeling for each other in Change of Habit.

Moore moved on to movies under contract with Universal Pictures where she made 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967 with Julie Andrews, and the 1968 films Whats So Bad About Feeling Good? with George Peppard, and Dont Just Stand There! with Robert Wagner.  Memorably she played a nun opposite Elvis Presley in Change of Habit in 1969.  That flick was a box office disappointment on its first release but has become a cult favorite.

Meanwhile Moore and Tinkler formed a new production company, MTM Enterprises in 1969 and successfully pitched a new sitcom to CBS for the 1970 season.  The Mary Tyler Moore Show turned out to be even more successful than The Dick Van Dyke Show and was culturally significant in profound ways.

In the show Moore portrayed Mary Richards, a thirty-something single woman who arrives in Minneapolis to start a new life and career.  Just what she was doing since presumably graduating from college is never quite clear but the lyrics to the show’s catchy theme song, Love is All Around by prolific 70s tunesmith Paul Williams indicate she may have had a bumpy ride.

How will you make it on your own?
This world is awfully big, girl this time you’re all alone
But it’s time you started living
It’s time you let someone else do some giving.

Love is all around, no need to waste it
You can have a town, why don’t you take it.
You’re gonna make it after all
You’re gonna make it after all.

Mary landed a job as sort of a Girl Friday in the newsroom of a third rate local TV station and launched a career in which she would steadily advance first to a news writer then to a producer.  Earlier Marlo Thomas had been the first to portray an “independent single woman”—if you forget about early television’s Our Miss Brooks and Private Secretary—in That Girl!  But Thomas’s character was an actress/model who sometimes took odd jobs rather than a career woman and much of the show focused on her Doris Day-like virginal relationship with her boyfriend.  Although The Mary Tyler Moore Show did not spend a lot of time on Mary’s love life, it was tacitly understood that she was no na├»ve maiden saving herself for the right man.  One episode made headlines when Mary casually decided to go on the Pill.

Mary became the focal point of her workplace, relied upon by her crusty managing editor Lou Grant (Ed Asner); the pompous, vain, and ignorant anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight); world weary writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin McLeod); and was vexed by a seemingly sweet but backstabbing cooking show host Sue Ann Nevins (Betty White.) 

On the job Mary fought for equal pay with the men in the newsroom and gently confronted prejudice about what a woman could do.

Mary collecting Emmys with castmates Ed Asner, Betty White, and Ted Knight.

She found a not terribly grand or glamorous apartment in a converted Victorian mansion where she made friends with another single woman, sharp tongued Rhoda Morgenstern, a Brooklyn Jewish transplant with a woeful love life, and somewhat more reluctantly with landlady Phyllis Linstrom, a middle aged woman with an always unseen husband Lars.

In seven seasons the show was almost always in the Nielson top 20 and was early appointment TV for many.  The episode featuring the funeral of Chuckles the Clown, the station’s childrens show host who was trampled by an elephant while walking in a parade dressed as a giant peanut, is usually considered one of the top five funniest TV comedy episodes of all time.   The show garnered a then record-breaking 29 Emmys including 5 for Moore personally as an actress.

The city of Minneapolis commemorated the program with a life-sized statue of Moore tossing her knit cap in the air on the site where the famous opening sequence was filmed.

Mary tosses her cap in this Minneapolis bronze.

MTM productions spun off successful programs featuring Rhoda, Phyllis, and Lou Grant.  The company also made The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, The White Shadow, St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues, and Remington Steele making it one of the most powerful companies in TV.  Moore was compared to Lucille Ball and her Desilu Productions, but she was the first to admit that she was never the hands-on producer Ball became and that her husband Grant Tinkler managed the company.  Still, the company made her enormously wealthy and catapulted Tinkler to the position of Chairman and CEO of NBC from 1981 to 1986 after his divorce from Moore.  Moore left the management of the company in the hands of Arthur Price under whose management it went into a slow decline and was sold in 1986 to Jim Victory Television.  The company and its valuable catalog changed hand several more times and is now owned by the Walt Disney Company.

The end of her marriage to Tinkler was part of a dark time for the woman that the public associated with perkiness and spunk.  She had been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes 33 in 1969 just as she was getting set to launch her eponymous show.  Although she was able to control the illness, the effects worsened over the years and were the cause of serious health issues in the final decades of her life.  She became an activist for diabetes research and was the long time chair and public face of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, now known as the JDRF.

After all of her success, Moore struggled to establish a lasting new television program.  Later forays into series programming, including two variety shows and two short lived sitcoms were notable failures. Her movie career fizzled after the box office failure of Change of Habit.  To cope with the disappointments and frustrations she turned increasingly to drink and like her former TV husband Dick Van Dyke, she struggled with alcoholism.  She chronicled that battle in her 1995 memoir After All.

Moore with her blamed and rejected son played by Timothy Hutton in Robert Redford's 1980 Ordinary People which also starred Donald Sutherland.

In 1980 Moore was cast against type as the cold mother who rejects her surviving son after his brother and her favorite died in a sailing accident in Ordinary People.  Robert Redfords directorial debut was one of the most admired films of the year and earned six Academy Award nominations and won four including Best Picture and Best Director.  Moore was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and won a Golden Globe to add to her crowed trophy case.

She could hardly enjoy the success.  On October 14, 1980, less than a month after the premier of Ordinary Moore’s only child, 24 year old Richard died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound.  Moore always maintained that the death was accidental but it was ruled a suicide.  The loss was devastating to her.

In 1983 Moore found some peace and comfort when she married Dr. Robert Levine who she met while he was treating her mother.  They made their home in New York City and in Connecticut where he remained devoted to her through her increasingly fragile health until she died.

Moore appeared as a guest on various TV programs and starred in several made-for-TV movies including Stolen Babies for which she won another Emmy in 1993.  Notably, she reunited with surviving members of Dick Van Dyke Show in a 2004 TV movie.  Her last work was on an episode of Hot in Cleveland in 2012 that reunited her with series regular Betty White as well as Mary Tyler Moore regulars Cloris Leachman, Valerie Harper, and Georgia Engel.  The reunion was partly the result of Harper’s announcement that she had inoperable brain cancer and Moore’s own fragile health.

Mar Tyler Moore at a Broadway Barks event.

Increasingly, Moore spent her energy in philanthropic pursuits.  In addition to her work with the JDRF she raised money for Civil War landmark preservation in honor of her father’s lifelong passion.  She was especially interested in animal welfare.  She worked with Farm Sanctuary to raise awareness about the process involved in factory farming and to promote compassionate treatment of farm animals.  A long-time vegetarian, she promoted a meatless diet.  With close friend Bernadette Peters she founded Broadway Barks an annual pet adopt-a-thon in New York CityThe two also campaigned together to get the city animal control agencies and shelters adopt a no-kill policy.

But she struggled with ill health.  In 2011 she survived surgery to remove a meningioma, a benign brain tumor.  By 2014 friends reported that diabetes symptoms were contributing to renal failure and vision loss.  She died from cardiopulmonary arrest because of after suffering from pneumonia a week after being placed on life support at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut.

Millions mourning the woman who really did turn the world on with her smile.

 

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