Mary Tyler Moore: A Trailblazer Onscreen and Off

[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]

[Turning the World On With Her Smile]

There are few moments in the history of television as iconic as the one which caps off the intro to The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

In this moment, we watch Mary Richards, the character played by the titular actress, as she gazes in wonder at the bustling urban sights of Minneapolis. She twirls around, a huge smile on her face. Then, in one fluid motion, she pulls off her cap and tosses it in the air. Freeze frame.

On paper, the image sounds ludicrous. Yet in context, it perfectly captures the feeling of the show’s main character. She’s ecstatic about the world around her, and incredibly free in mind and spirit. For seven seasons and 168 episodes, that image told us exactly who this character was.

More subtly, it told us about the actress who portrayed the character for all those seasons and episodes. Mary Tyler Moore was nothing if not free in spirit – she was a trailblazer on multiple levels, and through multiple means.

Moore’s acting career began in the 1950s, with a string of bit parts on television shows like Wanted: Dead or Alive and 77 Sunset Strip. Her most prominent role was one in which she was almost entirely unseen: as the mysterious receptionist on one season of Richard Diamond, Private Detective. (The camera never showed more than her legs, intending to give her character an air of mystery.)

But she finally struck gold in 1961, when Carl Reiner cast her on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Playing opposite Van Dyke (as Laura Petrie, wife to his Rob), Moore proved her comic timing to be as sharp and polished as any other woman of her era. Her Capri pants sparked a fashion firestorm during the Kennedy era, and she picked up two Emmy Awards over the show’s five seasons.

Following the end of the popular sitcom, Moore tried breaking into movies. She had modest success with films like Thoroughly Modern Millie and Don’t Just Stand There!, but her tight comedic energy seemed better suited to television. In 1969, she and her husband, Grant Tinker (who would later become the CEO of NBC), formed MTM Enterprises, a production company designed to develop new television series. Their first series? The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

It’s difficult to stress just how much of an impact this one little sitcom had on the television landscape. The idea of a television series centered on a liberated single woman was, well, rather uncommon in 1971. (The original pitch for the show described Mary’s character – also named Mary – as “freshly divorced,” but CBS felt that to be a bit much.) Most female sitcom stars at the time were either happily married or haplessly in search of love. But Mary Richards was neither. She was a strong, independent woman with a prestigious TV news job and no need for a boyfriend or husband.

Mary was a modern take on the feminist movement, her characterization underscored by the polar opposition of her two closest friends – Rhoda (Valerie Harper), forever in search of the perfect guy, and Phyllis (Cloris Leachman), comfortably married to a never-seen husband. Both Rhoda and Phyllis would eventually earn their own spin-offs – but even beyond the two of them, the show maintained a solid supporting cast at Mary’s workplace. From the start, we had Lou Grant (Ed Asner, who would later reprise the character for another spin-off, albeit an hourlong dramatic one), Mary’s gruff but avuncular boss at WJM-TV; Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod), the staff’s chief (and only) newswriter; and Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), the egotistical but shortsighted anchorman. Mary played perfectly off them all – she may have been the only woman in a male-dominated workforce, but her coworkers treated her as nothing less than an equal.

But even beyond the politics, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was simply a great work of television. The writing was smart and funny, the characters were charming and remarkably (for the time) well-developed, and the stories sophisticated and engaging. Months before the premiere and phenomenal rise of All in the Family, TMTMS breathed fresh new life into the sitcom formula (which had veered dangerously towards goofy territory during the late ’60s), giving audiences a show that was entertaining on both a story and a topical level. And it anchored everything with the help of its fantastic female star, who could wring both laughter and tears – occasionally, at the same time. (See “Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II” or “Chuckles Bites the Dust.”)

Following the seven-season run of her eponymous show, Moore tried to work her sitcom image into a variety show format. Before the 1970s were over, she had starred in two hourlong variety series – neither of which proved successful with audiences. The first, called Mary, was cancelled after three episodes; the second, titled The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, adopted a quasi-sitcom format and survived for eleven. The evidence was clear: Moore was at her best when playing a legitimate character, even one who shared her real name.

Her film career spiked briefly in the ’80s (she earned an Oscar nomination for her work in Ordinary People), but her real successes of that decade came in the form of MTM Productions. The studio produced a string of great television shows, from Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere to The Bob Newhart Show. Though she was not directly involved in their production, it was her and Tinker’s company that first got them on the air.

Moore’s acting career soon began to wane, as her inability to escape the shadow of Mary Richards became a detriment. She tried reviving her sitcom career with the half-hour Mary (no relation to the hourlong Mary), and later with Annie Maguire and New York News. None of these shows lasted more than one season, and Moore’s acting, for the last twenty years of her life, was relegated mainly to guest appearances and reunion specials.

Still, when all is said and done… that’s one heck of a career. Mary Tyler Moore starred in two of television’s all-time most beloved and classic sitcoms – one of which defined female-driven television for decades to come. The impact of her show can be seen in series ranging from 30 Rock to The Good Wife, and so much in between. A bronze statue of Mary Richards, in the iconic hat-throwing pose, sits outside Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis.

So thank you, Mary. You helped change the way we think of television, inspired millions of women around the world, and brought us many hours of joy all the while. Looks like you made it after all.


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6 thoughts on “Mary Tyler Moore: A Trailblazer Onscreen and Off”

  1. [Note: Flamepillar112 posted this comment on January 26, 2017.]

    I’m very glad you posted this. It says it in the opening title of her titular show: She turned the world on with her smile. RIP 😦

    Like

  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 26, 2017.]

    Thanks. I normally don’t make these sorts of tributes, but I’ve been watching TMTMS reruns lately on Sundance TV and felt compelled to write something up.

    Like

  3. [Note: buffyholic posted this comment on January 28, 2017.]

    What a wonderful article. I knew about Mary Tyler Moore but I´ve never watched her show until now. I came across “Chuckles bites the dust” and I was laughing so hard I almost cried and a few days later, I saw that episode and the next one “Mary´s Delinquent” and was so good. I now wanna watch the entire series because I feel it´s a different breed from what we see nowadays in comedies or sitcoms.

    btw, you forgot to mention Sue Ann, another character on the show, played by Betty White.

    Like

  4. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 28, 2017.]

    The show holds up very well, and is still a hilarious treat. And yes, Betty White was great as Sue Ann (although she didn’t join the cast until Season Four).

    Like

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