Mary Tyler Moore, Sweetheart of American TV, Dies at 80
Mary Tyler Moore, whose roles as a perky housewife on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s and as a spunky, single working woman in her eponymous ’70s sitcom made her America’s sweetheart, has died. She was 80.
Moore played opposite her TV persona and received an Oscar nomination for her performance as an icy mother struggling to connect with her son in Robert Redford’s best-picture winner Ordinary People (1980).
The six-time Emmy Award winner had elective surgery in May 2012 to remove what is known as a meningioma, or benign tumor of the lining tissue of her brain.
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Moore starred opposite Dick Van Dyke as suburban stay-at-home mom Laura Petrie from 1961-66, then played Mary Richards — a hard-luck loser in love who moves across the state to Minneapolis and gets a job at local TV station WJM for the 6 o’clock news — from 1970-77.
The latter represented a bold move for a series’ main character to be an independent, never-married woman, and Moore became an icon for the feminist movement.
A native of Brooklyn who came with her family to Los Angeles when she was 8, Moore aspired to be a dancer. Her first big break came when she was cast as a dancing kitchen appliance — Happy Hotpoint, the Hotpoint Appliance elf — in commercials.
That led to appearances on several TV shows, including 1957’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective, in which Moore played Diamond’s (David Janssen) sultry answering service girl. Her legs were shown, but never her face.
Moore had auditioned for the role of the older daughter on The Danny Thomas Show (also known as Make Room for Daddy) but failed to get the part (Thomas reportedly said that no daughter of his could have a nose that tiny). However, Thomas recommended Moore to Carl Reiner in 1961 when he was casting The Dick Van Dyke Show, the CBS series that was based on Reiner’s life and career as a writer for Sid Caesar’s TV variety shows.
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Moore started on The Dick Van Dyke Show at age 23 (she was 11 years younger than her male co-star). Often wearing capri pants instead of a dress — that caused quite a stir at the time — she took care of their young son Ritchie (Larry Mathews) and the house in New Rochelle, N.Y., while Van Dyke’s character, Rob, worked on a sitcom in Manhattan.
Moore won Emmys in 1964 and 1966, and the show collected 15 trophies in all.
In 1970, Moore and her second husband, Grant Tinker, a former ad executive and vp at Fox Television (and later chairman of NBC), pitched The Mary Tyler Moore Show to CBS. On the series, created by James Brooks and Allan Burns, Moore’s character has hundreds of dates but never finds true love. The premise of the single woman, alternating between work and home, would become a TV staple.
With the darling Moore as the centerpiece of an outstanding ensemble, the show was a ratings hit and won a then-record 29 Emmys, and she took home the best comedy actress trophies in 1973, 1974 and 1976. The sitcom, which closed with a third straight Emmy for best comedy series, anchored CBS’ Saturday night lineup that also included All in the Family, M*A*S*H and The Carol Burnett Show.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show also spawned shows starring Ed Asner (Lou Grant), Cloris Leachman (Phyllis) and Valerie Harper (Rhoda), all produced by Moore and Tinker’s company, MTM Enterprises.
MTM, which was sold to a British company for $320 million in 1988, also produced such series as The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere.
Moore and Tinker divorced in 1981, and she moved to New York City.
Two late-’70s efforts at a variety show followed and failed: Mary, which featured David Letterman and Michael Keaton, and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, a backstage show within a show. In 1985, she returned to CBS in another series titled Mary, but that lasted just 13 episodes, and she played the title character in the short-lived 1988-89 comedy Annie McGuire.
For Ordinary People, his directorial debut, Redford cast Moore as Beth Jarrett, a frighteningly cold suburban mother who can’t forgive her teenage son for living after his brother (her favorite son) dies.
Of Moore’s performance, Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote: “(She) is remarkably fine, simultaneously delicate and tough and desperate.” The film won four Oscars, including one for Redford.
Moore had a film contract with Universal early in her career. She appeared in such movies as X-15 (1961), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968), Don’t Just Stand There! (1968), Change of Habit (1969) opposite Elvis Presley, Six Weeks (1982) and Just Between Friends (1986).
In more recent years, Moore was seen on television in guest-starring roles on That ’70s Show, Lipstick Jungle and Hot in Cleveland. She won her sixth Emmy for her performance in the 1993 miniseries Stolen Babies.
MTM Enterprises produced several Broadway plays, and she appeared on the stage in Whose Life Is It Anyway?, which opened on Broadway in 1980, ran for 96 performances and earned her a special Tony Award, and Sweet Sue, which bowed in 1987 and lasted 164 performances.
Moore wrote two autobiographies, which revealed the turmoil in her life. The first, released in 1995, acknowledged that she was an alcoholic, and the second, published in 2009, concentrated on living with diabetes.
Richie, her son with first husband Dick Meeker, died of an accidental and self-inflicted shotgun wound in 1980. He was 24. Two years earlier, her sister, Elizabeth, died at age 21 from a drug overdose. And her brother, John, died of liver cancer in 1992 at age 47.
Moore was married three times, the last time to cardiologist Robert Levine. He survives her.