She came to us through our TV screens as an intelligent, attractive woman, someone whose best-known character was a working woman who turned her workplace into a family, who had strong opinions and values, yet was also modest, reticent, and occasionally a tad intimidated. You could hear it in her voice — a high, musical voice with the suggestion of a quaver in it, which contrasted with the boldness of her big, wide smile. Mary Tyler Moore, who died on Wednesday, gave audiences something they didn’t know they wanted — that they needed. Before Moore gave us Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, we had never seen so complex — so three-dimensional — a woman on a sitcom.
Moore is one of the key figures in television history. She became a star while still a co-star, playing a wife on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s. But then in 1970, Moore did something amazing: She forced the sitcom to mature, with the premiere of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Starring in a show created by the production company she formed with her husband, Grant Tinker, Moore helped to create a character who stood apart from all the funny women on television who’d preceded her.
Her Mary Richards was a single woman working as an associate producer at a TV news station in Minneapolis. That sentence alone features a couple of groundbreakers: Moore and her writers had wanted to make Mary a divorcée, but CBS nixed that as unacceptable for a mass TV audience, so she did her best to make Mary as independent and free-thinking as any well-mannered feminist could. Then too, as a female associate producer, Mary Richards had to contend with being mistaken for a secretary (a job her boss, Ed Asner’s Lou Grant, pointed out actually paid $10 a week more) or someone who’d slept with the boss to get the position. (The series was artful in hinting that both Lou and Mary Richards’s deskmate pal, Gavin MacLeod’s Murray, were in love with Mary, but it never went further than a hint.)
Related: Mary Tyler Moore’s Greatest Roles
Unlike that other great TV pioneer woman, Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore didn’t play wacky or ditzy. Mary Richards was a grown woman, not a girl, with an active dating life and even — startling for the times — an active sex life. In one episode, her mother said to Mary’s father, “Don’t forget to take your pill.” Before the dad answered, Mary said brightly, “I won’t!” before realizing her error. And Moore was great at that sort of embarrassed yet unabashed comic reaction shot.
On her show, she was frequently the straight woman, letting co-stars such as Ted Knight (as pompous anchorman Ted Baxter) or Valerie Harper (as abrasive neighbor Rhoda) or Betty White (as sweet-as-a-spider “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens) get the guffaws. But Mary Richards was a laugh-getter in her own way: In her plaintive wail, “Oh, Mr. Grant!”; in her sometimes-failed attempts to maintain decorum — most prominently in the classic “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode, when she could not suppress the giggles while being horribly embarrassed at losing control.
Moore had come to prominence, of course, as Laura Petrie, wife of joke writer Rob Petrie, in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66). There too, Moore broke with convention. Yes, the plots sometimes had her making silly mistake, such as getting her toe stuck in a hotel bathtub faucet (!), but more often, Laura was the voice of calm reason in the Petrie household. Plus, she was uncommonly sexy for a sitcom wife, in her slinky capri pants and light-footed walk around the house — Laura’s origin story was that she’d met Rob while working as a dancer in the USO.
Laura Petrie was essentially a man’s vision of an ideal mate, and she gave that show everything creator Carl Reiner and star Van Dyke could have wanted. But when it came time to build her own show around herself, we got a woman’s vision of what a woman could be — with lotsa laughs thrown into the mix.
Moore was a hard worker who had tried to make a film career work, scoring an Oscar nomination for the 1980 drama Ordinary People, but she also appeared in a lot of silly fluff, including a starring role opposite Elvis Presley as a nun in 1969’s Change of Habit. (That experience alone must have convinced Moore that television and feminism were the way to go from then on.)
After The Mary Tyler Moore Show, her most notable TV achievement was hosting a short-lived variety show, 1978’s Mary, which showcased up-and-coming talent, such as Michael Keaton and David Letterman. The latter had her on his talk show numerous times, always expressing his fondness for and gratefulness to her. Like Dave, we remain so fond of her — she was so easy to love — and so grateful for what she gave us.