Mary Tyler Moore didn’t have it all on her 1970s sitcom, but what she had was enough. A husband and kids, long the stock TV recipe for female contentment, were absent from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Instead, Mary Richards combined work, friends and boyfriends into an alternative version of a modern young woman’s full life.
Feminism had already said it was possible. Mary made it mainstream with her charm and million-watt smile, showing America that an independent woman could be admired and embraced.
She was so inspiring that even those lacking her perfect balance of grace and cheek imagined themselves achieving their own success.
Moore, who died on Wednesday, “influenced my career more than any other tv role model,” NBC newswoman Andrea Mitchell posted on Twitter. “She indeed turned on the world with her smile” as the theme song had it.
Marlo Thomas, who played another single women intent on a career in the 1960s sitcom That Girl, saluted Moore and their shared achievement. “I’m proud that we were in that groundbreaking sorority that brought single independent women to television. She will be deeply missed,” she said.
Moore was a daring actress whose talents extended beyond comedy, said Robert Redford, who directed her to an Oscar nomination in the 1980 family drama Ordinary People. “The courage she displayed in taking on a role... darker than anything she had ever done, was brave and enormously powerful,” Redford said.
Moore, who gained fame in the 1960s as frazzled wife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, went on to win seven Emmy Awards over the years.
As Laura, she traded in the housedress of countless sitcom wives for Capri pants that were as fashionable as they were suited to a modern American woman. She wasn’t perfect: Viewers identified with her flustered moments and her plaintive cry to her husband: “Ohhhh, Robbbb!”
Moore’s chemistry with Van Dyke was unmistakable. Decades later, he spoke warmly of the chaste but palpable off-screen crush they shared during the show’s run.
They also appeared together in several TV specials over the years and in 2003, co-starred in a PBS production of the play The Gin Game. “There are no words. She was THE BEST! We always said that we changed each other’s lives for the better,” Van Dyke tweeted.
But it was as the plucky Minneapolis TV news producer on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) that she truly made her mark. Mary Richards was comfortable being single in her 30s, and while she dated, she wasn’t desperate to get married. She sparred affectionately with her gruff boss, Lou Grant, played by Ed Asner, and millions agreed with the show’s theme song that she could “turn the world on with her smile”.
The series ran for seven years and won 29 Emmys, a record that stood for a quarter century until Frasier broke it in 2002.
“Everything I did was by the seat of the pants. I reacted to every written situation the way I would have in real life,” Moore said in 1995.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” spawned the spin-offs Rhoda, (1974-78), starring Valerie Harper; Phyllis (1975-77) starring Cloris Leachman; and Lou Grant (1977-82), starring Asner in a rare drama spun off from a comedy.
Mary Tyler Moore was the first in a series of acclaimed, award-winning shows she produced with her second husband, Grant Tinker, who died in November 2016, through their MTM Enterprises. (The meowing kitten at the end of the shows was a parody of the MGM lion.) The Bob Newhart Show and Hill Street Blues were among the MTM series that followed.
Moore’s seventh Emmy came in 1993 for a Lifetime network movie, Stolen Babies. She had won two for The Dick Van Dyke Show and the other four for Mary Tyler Moore. In 2012, Moore received the Screen Actors Guild’s lifetime achievement award.
On the big screen, Moore’s appearances were less frequent. She was a 1920s flapper in the hit 1967 musical Thoroughly Modern Millie and a nun who falls for Elvis Presley in Change of Habit in 1969.
Moore was born in 1936 in Brooklyn; the family moved to California when she was around 8 years old. She began dance lessons as a child and launched her career while still in her teens, appearing in TV commercials.
She endured personal tragedy. Her only child, Richard, who had had trouble in school and with drugs, accidentally shot himself at 24. Her younger sister, Elizabeth, died at 21 from a combination of a painkillers and alcohol.
In her 1995 autobiography After All, Moore admitted she helped her terminally ill brother try to commit suicide by feeding him ice cream laced with a deadly overdose of drugs. The attempt failed, and her 47-year-old brother, John, died three months later in 1992 of kidney cancer.
Moore herself lived with juvenile diabetes for some 40 years and told of her struggle in her 2009 book, Growing Up Again. She also spent five weeks at the Betty Ford Clinic in 1984 for alcohol abuse.
In 1983, she married cardiologist Robert Levine, who survives her. Her marriage to Tinker lasted from 1962 to 1981. Before that, she was with Dick Meeker from 1955 to 1961.