Mary Tyler Moore: She made it on her own
As we entered 2017, I was cautiously optimistic that we would be spared the onset of celebrity deaths 2016 brought upon us. Sadly, not even past the first month of a new year and we have to say goodbye to yet another television icon.
Mary Tyler Moore died Wednesday at the age of 80. Her family said her death was caused by cardiopulmonary arrest after contracting penumonia. She also battled diabetes for years.
Moore illuminated our lives when she burst into our living rooms with a megawatt smile and even more charm as Rob Petrie’s wife, Laura, on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Mary wasn’t meant to stay on the sidelines, however, complementing Van Dkye’s comedy to perfection.
From the beginning, Moore was pushing the boundaries of how women were portrayed in Hollywood. After pointing out that real housewives didn’t really vacuum and do dishes while wearing perfectly pressed dresses and high heels, Moore pushed for Laura to wear capri pants at home. CBS studio executives were worried housewives would be annoyed that Moore looked too good in her pants and made the show’s creator Carl Reiner promise Mary wouldn’t don capri pants in more than one scene. However, that lasted only for a few episodes before the pants were in regular circulation in Laura’s onscreen wardrobe. Viewers breathed a sigh of relief that finally someone got it — Moore was a reflection of their everyday reality. Mary was real.
The Dick Van Dyke Show ran from 1961-66 and ended at the height of its popularity at Dick Van Dyke’s behest. Moore’s removal from the the spotlight couldn’t last for long, launching her namesake legacy gem The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970. Moore and then-husband Grant Tinker, who passed away less than 2 months ago, co-founded MTM Enterprises and pitched the project to CBS. Tinker and Moore were responsible for most of what we consider “classic TV” today and launched legendary careers for some of the greatest talent of any generation.
As Mary Richards, Moore continued breaking new ground for how the modern woman was portrayed. The show begins with Mary heading off to Minneapolis after realizing her boyfriend would never want to get married. In the opening sequence, we see Mary driving her Mustang bravely into her new adventure. She tosses her knitted cap in the air, with all the reckless abandon of an entire generation of women who wanted to discover independence and their purpose, preparing to live her life her way.
She applies for a secretarial position at the lowest rated television station, the fictitious WJM-TV. After meeting with Lou Grant (Ed Asner), she learns the position has been filled, but he instead offers her the job of Associate Producer of the evening news broadcast with anchor Ted Baxter (Ted Knight). As a journalist, I always loved seeing Mary forge her own path to success in the industry, even if it was at a fictional media outlet, the message was the same.
Throughout the series’ run, as only she could do, Mary continues to become confident in her role, ever so timidly and politely demanding — or requesting — or maybe just suggesting, equal pay for her work and respect from her peers. Mary also traversed the dating scene as a single, working woman in the 1970s and the sitcom wasn’t afraid to tackle the sensitive issues of the day, including Mary’s choice of contraception. Over the years, her co-workers, Mr. Grant, Ted, Murrary (Gavin MacLeod), Sue Ann (Betty White) and neighbors Rhoda (Valerie Harper) and Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) become her surrogate family.
In their first meeting, Mr. Grant said he hated her spunk, but that’s just one of the many reasons we loved Mary so much. She felt real. We felt like we knew her. She wasn’t just their Mary, she was our Mary, too.
We affably knew, for 50 years, that Mary held the switch to turn the whole world on, simply with her smile.
What we didn’t realize is what happened to our smile when she left.