On a cold and windy Wednesday afternoon we heard the news that Mary Tyler Moore had died at the age of 80, and it felt like a sunnier and spunkier era of American popular culture had passed along with her. She really could turn the world on with her smile, not to mention that body of hers, and the body of work she created over her long and varied career is even more impressive.
Moore began her show business career as a dancer, most notably as the perfectly lithe female figure in the skin-tight suit prancing around in the Hotpoint appliance company’s commercials for the “Ozzie and Harriet” show, but she soon moved into acting and got a number of small television roles on small shows, most notably as the elegant legs and inviting lips and mesmerizing eyes of an otherwise unseen answering service girl on “Richard Diamond, Private Detective.” She was reportedly turned down for the forgettable role of Danny Thomas’ daughter on the lame sit-com “Make Room For Daddy” because her perfectly upturned nose would have raised doubts about the famously well-schnozzled star’s paternity, which turned out to be a lucky break when she instead landed the plum role of the suburban housewife on the still-dazzling “Dick Van Dyke Show.” America got to see all of Moore’s top-to-bottom beauty in the program, along with the charming personality and comedic flair and undeniable intelligence and wide range of talent that went with it, and after that Moore was pretty much a permanent star.
This was right around the same time we were starting to notice women and all that, and Moore made an indelible impression on our impressionable minds. We were gobsmacked by the beauty and charm and flair and smarts and talent, and how nicely it was all packed into those capri pants and belly-revealing sweaters that became all the fashion back then and still look good on similar women even to this day, but we were also forewarned by the comedic genius of her portrayal of a perfect suburban housewife that even the best of women can be insecure and prone to cry and and shout “oh, Rob” and will occasionally put a dent into your beloved sports car. Re-watch some of those scenes on the late-night UHF re-runs and you’ll marvel at how brilliantly Moore played them for laughs, and how utterly appealing even her most flawed womanhood was.
After that Moore tried for the upper rung of movie stardom, but despite some memorable performances in some otherwise forgettable movies she wound up back in television, which was another lucky break because it resulted in the still-dazzling “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Her first marriage to a salesman who was the father of her only child ended in divorce, she re-married a big-wig at 20th Century Fox, and although the marriage produced no children it did result in a production company that made some of the best television of the next several decades. Moore’s eponymous sit-com was the first of it, and would have made the partnership notable by itself.
The situation for the comedy was an unmarried woman in her mid-30s trying to make a living as a producer for a low-rated television news program in frigid Minneapolis, with a lovably neurotic Jewish neighbor and a meddling Nordic landlady and a gruff-but-sweet editor and bored but droll news writer and inept yet arrogant news reader thrown into the mix, and if you’re up late enough to catch one of the re-runs that are still playing on the UHF channels you’ll still notice how well the cast of veterans from small roles in small shows pulled it off. Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman were so good as the Jewish neighbor and Nordic landlady they had their own hit spin-offs, Ed Asner was so good as the gruff boss he had a popular and critically-acclaimed hour-long drama spin-off, and Ted Baxter’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the bumptious broadcaster landed him that unforgettable role in “Caddyshack.” Betty White also did such a good job exploiting her previous image as a television sweetheart a the man-hungry and amoral but almost convincingly sweetheart “Happy Homemaker” that she’s still a star even in her ’90s, but despite her willingness to assume a ensemble role Moore stood out.
At the time Moore was hailed as a feminist heroine, being 30-something and still unmarried and fighting for wage equality in the workplace and perhaps even having sex and all the rest of it that was still slightly cutting-edge in the ’70s, but she also continued to perfectly portray the insecurities and crying jags and the lament of not having a husband to cry out to and everything else you need to be forewarned about women, and it’s hard to imagine any feminist heroes of the moment being so universally desired by men. Moore never did embrace that feminist heroine status, and we’d like to think it’s because she didn’t like how it how it failed to appreciate the very subtle nuances of her performances, but her work in television gave women plenty of reason to be proud. Her subsequent attempts at name-in-the-title television were dull variety shows and mostly lame sit-coms that were short-lived and quickly forgotten, but the production company she’d formed with her husband gave birth to such excellent television-of-the-time as “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Newhart” and “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “Hill Street Blues,” and the talent they nurtured also led to such worthy entertainment as “The Simpsons,” which is still occasionally dazzling after 30-some years on the air. If you haven’t seen any of it don’t worry, it’s just TV, but at a time when everyone was watching TV it was as good as it got.
Moore continued to act on both the large and small screens until not along ago, and although her youthful beauty had aged her talents had ripened. She played an embittered mother who passively-aggressively tormented her son after the death of a favored sibling in “Ordinary People” with exquisite iciness, won Emmy Awards for made-for-TV roles as a breast cancer survivor and a Mary Todd Lincoln succumbing to mental illness, and the former comedic beauty was always undeniably good. We also liked that she was almost always quite reserved about her private life and political opinions, but it leaked out that the sunny sweetheart who could turn the world on with her smile and make a nothing day suddenly seem worthwhile had endured a harsh girlhood with two alcoholic parents, suffered the death of her only child due to a gun accident caused by a manufacturing glitch, endured the deaths of both of her husbands, fought her own alcoholism and childhood demons and diabetes and other health problems throughout her life, and did so with an interview-denying dignity that is all too rare these days. You can sense something of it from almost every moment she spent on screen, and everything else she poured into her other projects, but the laughs that she and the rest of the world of got from it are the most of what remains.
We’ll be needing some of that sunniness and spunk and best sort of feminism in the coming days, and we’re grateful that it will still be showing up on the late night UHF channels for a while, and we hope Laura Petrie and Mary Richards and all the other beguiling creations of Mary Tyler Moore will rest in peace.
— Bud Norman