Mary Tyler Moore, Pioneer On and Off the Screen, Has Died

Mary Tyler Moore, whose touchstone of a 1970s sitcom ushered in a new era for women on and off camera, has died. She was 80.

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After achieving fame on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Moore won four Primetime Emmys for her work as the spunky and unrepentantly single TV news producer on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970 to 1977. She later earned an Oscar nomination as the icy mother in Ordinary People and co-founded MTM Productions, the influential production company behind iconic series like The Bob Newhart Show, Newhart, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere.

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More than anything, though, Moore made her mark as Mary Richards. “I think she represents an indomitable spirit — that she believes, as everyone can, in possibilities,” Moore told CNN of her alter ego in 2002.

Unlike primetime women who came before her, the Mary Tyler Moore Show heroine was nobody’s wife, widow, mother, or girlfriend. All this, and she was on the other side of 30, too. “The women’s movement more or less broke when we went on the air,” series co-creator Allan Burns told the Associated Press in 1973. “Rather than fight it, Mary has become increasingly independent.”

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Today Mary Richards and her DNA can be found in nearly every major female character in primetime. Moore’s behind-the-scenes influence can be felt, too — she was a pioneering female executive whose series jump-started the careers of women writers. Tina Fey, who would write, produce and star in her own sitcom about a single woman working in TV, said her 30 Rock team literally studied The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “We talked about that show a lot, as a template, obviously, of a great show,” Fey told The New York Times in 2007, “but also a show that is all about the relationships in the workplace, but not the making of television so much.”

(Credit: Everett Collection)
(Credit: Everett Collection)

Born Dec. 29, 1936, in Brooklyn, Moore danced in dishwasher commercials, and bared her legs on the 1950s P.I. series Richard Diamond before achieving stardom with her role as a housewife in New Rochelle, New York. On The Dick Van Dyke Show, Moore was Laura Petrie, the supportive suburban spouse of TV writer Rob, played by namesake star Dick Van Dyke. Considered the smartest TV comedy of its day, the 1961-66 series led Moore to the first two of her seven career acting Emmys. After its run, Moore worked in film, most notably in the 1967 Julie Andrews musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and most notoriously in the 1969 Elvis Presley vehicle, Change of Habit.

In 1970, The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted. The first episode saw Moore’s Mary Richards, fresh from a broken engagement, take a job in the newsroom at Minneapolis’ WJM-TV. In the pilot, she declared her independence by spurning her former fiancé; the sentiment was reiterated in each week’s opening credits when Mary was seen tossing a tam into the air as the theme song declared, “You’re gonna make it after all!” (In 2002, Moore was present for the unveiling of a bronze statue in Minneapolis that immortalized that iconic hat throw.)

(Photo By Mike Ekern/Getty Images)
(Photo By Mike Ekern/Getty Images)

Ratings, though still strong, slipped in Mary Tyler Moore Show’s sixth season, and just as Carl Reiner ended The Dick Van Dyke Show before it lost its luster, Moore decided her sitcom’s seventh season would be its last.

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In 1980, Moore put Mary Richards in deep freeze to star in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. The jarring portrayal of a withholding, bitter mother earned her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination, and, for a time, a renewed film career. Meanwhile MTM Enterprises, which Moore founded in 1969 with then-husband Grant Tinker, produced a number of well-regarded shows into the 1980s, each ending with the company’s signature kitten meow.

Off-camera, Moore was private and more reserved than her public persona. “I tend not to be quite as optimistic as Mary Richards,” she said in 1980. In her 1995 memoir, After All, she revealed that she had been molested by a family friend at the age of 6.When she was 33, soon after suffering a miscarriage, Moore was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes — a condition she would battle the rest of her life — a condition she would battle the rest of her life. She also struggled with addictions to alcohol and Valium. The cruelest blow came in 1980 when Richard C. Meeker Jr., Moore’s only child, died of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 24.

Looking back, Moore said she was happy to have been a Mary Richards role model for one generation, just as she was happy to have been a Laura Petrie role model for another. In 2002, Moore called The Mary Tyler Moore Show “the best seven years of my life.” In 1988, her sister, Elizabeth, died at age 21 from a drug overdose. And her brother, John, died of liver cancer in 1992 at age 47.