The sitcom star who defined the modern career woman
Mary Tyler Moore 1936–2017
For generations of women, Mary Tyler Moore was a symbol of liberation. On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970 to 1977, the comic actress played Mary Richards, a spunky, single TV news producer who embodied a new American archetype: the independent career woman. But her perky go-getter TV image, which included one of the broadest, toothiest smiles in showbiz, disguised a succession of personal tragedies. Moore endured illness, alcoholism, and devastating loss, yet she never lost her comic edge. “Three things have helped me successfully go through the ordeals of life,” she once quipped. “An understanding husband, a good analyst, and millions of dollars.”
Born in Brooklyn, Moore moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was 8 years old, said The New York Times. Her father, a clerk, and her mother, a homemaker, “were both alcoholics,” and Moore chose to live with her aunt in L.A., only seeing her parents on special occasions. She landed her first showbiz job at age 17, starring in appliance commercials as “Happy Hotpoint, a caped dancing elf in a body stocking.” The following year, she married her first husband, cranberry products salesman Dick Meeker, with whom she’d have her only child, Richie.
Moore scored her first regular acting role in 1959 as “Sam, the sultry-voiced telephone operator” in Richard Diamond, Private Detective, said the Los Angeles Times. She was never seen in the show, save for provocative close-ups of her legs and mouth. Frustrated, she requested more screen time—and was axed after 13 episodes. Small TV parts followed, and then Moore auditioned for the role of Danny Thomas’ daughter on his sitcom Make Room for Daddy. She missed out “by a nose: her own,” which the large-nosed Thomas thought too pert to belong to his onscreen child. But while casting The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1961, executive producer Thomas asked, “Who was the kid we liked so much last year, the one with the three names and the funny nose?”
As Van Dyke’s “slightly scatterbrained wife,” said The Washington Post, Moore held her own among a cast of comedy vets. After Van Dyke wrapped the sitcom in 1966, Moore and her second husband, ad agency exec Grant Tinker, formed a production company, MTM Enterprises, and developed The Mary Tyler Moore Show. With sharp scripts and an expert ensemble that included Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, and Betty White, it was indelible, from the catchy opening theme (“Who can turn the world on with her smile?...”) to its sign-off, a meowing MTM kitten. When the show ended in 1978, MTM was thriving—it had already produced The Bob Newhart Show and would go on to make TV hits including Hill Street Blues and Remington Steele. Moore began to stretch her acting range and was nominated for an Oscar for her “frosty matriarch in 1980’s Ordinary People, Robert Redford’s directorial debut.”
But as her career hit new highs, Moore’s private life was racked with pain, said The Guardian (U.K.). Her younger sister “died of a drug overdose in 1978.” Two years later, Moore’s drug-addicted son “shot himself and died, in what appeared to be an accident”; in 1981, she divorced Tinker. She was already struggling with alcoholism; now her addiction became almost all-consuming. “I’d gone over an edge,” she said. “I didn’t know what to grab for steadiness.” Five weeks at the Betty Ford clinic in 1984 brought sobriety; a 33-year marriage to cardiologist Robert Levine, whom she wed in 1983, brought happiness. “It has been a wonderful life,” Moore said in 1995. “There are very few things I would go back and do differently.”