Mary Tyler Moore: A Few Words About a Legend in Comedy and Entertainment Who Helped Change the World

The loss of yet another legend, 80 year old Mary Tyler Moore, is a hard one to face just one week after the Women’s March. A woman who earned remarkable power and notoriety in two decades, she would become the feminist icon for countless women, at the time and in the future, for her spunky, intelligent characters on TV. She would bring not one, but two legendary TV women to life, first as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and a decade later as Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She would have two of the most successful consecutive series runs in TV history with multiple Emmy Awards for lead actress (6 of 15 nominations). And represented society’s changing image of women (and gender dynamics) with grace, sincerity, and great humor.

As Laura Petrie, she and onscreen husband Dick Van Dyke made marriage (and parenthood) look like it could be fun, even cool. Rather than the bickering characters seen in series like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners or simply playing second fiddle to their husband in series, Rob and Laura’s marriage was one of equality and a joyful partnership. They were together because they love each other, were friends, and forever hot for each other. Arguably only Burns and Allen (a carryover from the radio days) would have an on screen marriage with such warm and fairness. Marriage didn’t have to reinforce patriarchy, and Laura and Rob seemed uninterested in even entertaining such ideas; they were too busy enjoying the life they had.

Laura was a woman who could be just as funny as her husband, something creator Carl Reiner (who Moore would call a hero before even meeting him) discovered with Moore almost immediately. Even between the first and second episode the character and what Moore was given expanded, only growing season after season as Moore’s many comic and acting talents emerged. Moore had been cast at the urging of Danny Thomas, despite having little experience in comedy (a former dancer turned model and actress) and was thrown in with proven comics Van Dyke, Morey Amsterdam, and Rose Marie to sink or swim. She thrived when given the challenge, and wasn’t just the straight woman asked to set them up for jokes (as originally written), but able to carry her own outrageous plots and deliver some hilariously memorable moments (often punctuated with her hilarious sob or a variation of her “oh Rob” line). From accidentally inflating a lifeboat in the house to getting her toe stuck in a bathtub faucet, Moore was able to handle anything thrown at her.

To some, it may seem odd to see Laura Petrie as a feminist icon. After all, she had given up a career to raise her son and was often happy to allow her husband to play “head of the household.” Like Moore herself, Laura’s relationship with the feminist movement was a series of complicated whispers, going back and forth between the conservative family values and individualism (despite being pursued, she in fact never joined the movement spearheaded by women like Gloria Steinem). But Laura’s life at home consistently felt like one of choice, rather than masculine pressure or societal obligation, and even episodes which saw her flirting with pursuing other careers and interests usually resulted with her choosing to return home to son Richie. In many ways, it was Rob who showed a more progressive view of gender roles in the family, directly disputing Amsterdam’s ideas of “a woman’s place being in the kitchen” by supporting his wife’s freedom to have other pursuits.

If Laura’s views of feminism would align with anyone, it would most likely have paralleled Helen Gurley Brown’s (whose Sex and the Single Girl came out during the show’s run), who believed feminism and traditional femininity didn’t have to be mutually exclusive, ironically women could “have a husband and children but she doesn’t live through them. We treat her as her own person.” Laura was always her own person, beyond her role as wife and mother. The same views ultimately also seemed more in line with the character of Mary Richards during The Mary Tyler Moore Show (although perpetually demands for “good taste” from this “good girl” suggested this single girl kept her sex life behind closed doors). But it always made perfect sense that a modern woman like Laura could evolve into an independent woman like Mary.

After The Dick Van Dyke show ended, Moore pursued films (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Change of Habit) and stage work (including an infamous failure with the musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s) before she returned to TV with her own show and now co-owning the production company MTM. MTM, one of the first TV companies to grant writers creative control, was co-owned by Moore and husband Grant Tinker, formed when she received a CBS deal (after a reunion with Dick Van Dyke on a comedy special) to develop her own show. But even Moore admitted her role in the company was limited and allowed Tinker to manage the company.

Likewise, the show with her name in the title that would become a feminist touchstone, was created by two men (James L. Brooks and Allen Burns). Something of a gender reversal and update on the dynamics of The Dick Van Dyke Show (showing both work and home life), the show was revolutionary for its progressive depiction of women who were neither married nor widowed, but still single into their 30s. Just 10 years earlier, such women would have been the comic sidekicks (including Rose Marie on Dick Van Dyke), but were now the leads. The simple but revolutionary premise would return again and again with series such as Sex and the City, 30 Rock, New Girl and The Mindy Project.

While the show holds a place in pop culture as changing society with its feminist image of working women living independent lives (Mary also didn’t still live at home or with family), the show (and Moore) had a far more complicated relationship with liberal politics of the early 70s. When first tested for audiences, it received the lowest audience rating in CBS history with audiences considering characters like Rhoda too unlikable and Mary, a loser for her state of singleness. When it aired, feminist advocates claimed it didn’t go far enough, and was criticized for not addressing the issues of gender equality head on. For example, there was an uproar when Mary addressed an unfair wage gap at work, but didn’t pursue changing it when learning the male counterpart also supported a family (despite outrage, Moore herself liked the nuanced shading it gave to Mary Richards).

But Moore said even in 1997 that she didn’t want the show to be “a stand on the soap box and shout show. It pioneered, but pioneered without self-consciousness.” First and foremost she wanted relatable, lovable characters that were funny (and real). Through living, and showing characters living and working together, they learned to get along. Characters like Lou Grant and Ted Baxter’s sexist ways mellowed through working and interacting with Mary, seeing her not as a threat in the workplace, but an asset to be valued. And the show’s inner-workings also slowly changed; created by two men, it became the network series with the most female writers by the end of its run (including women who like Mary, had moved from secretarial positions to the writers’ desks). Under Moore, Tinker, Burns, and Brooks the show wouldn’t become an issue advocacy show, but became a beloved (and timeless) comedy series for its sense of realism.

Moore was slow to take on positions of authority in Hollywood, despite being one of the most powerful women on TV. She directed just one episode of her series, an experience she called “a wasted opportunity” because the show ran so smoothly already. It was the opportunity to take on more dramatic work which seemed to have ignited her to be more outspoken than at the height of her success on TV. In 1980, she won an honorary Tony for Whose Life Is it Anyway? (as a paraplegic asking for euthanasia) and grieving mother in the film Ordinary People, which earned her an Oscar nomination. Despite being greeted by audiences who claimed the character was hateful, she insisted she empathized with her as a victim of circumstances, burdened by restrictions society had put on women of her age and class, struggling to cope with devastating loss.

Moore herself struggled to deal with similar loss in her own life; her only son Richard died at 24 in a gun accident. She divorced a year later from Tinker and struggled with alcoholism, diabetes, and a brain tumor (in 2011). Her work on screen decreased (although she starred in four other short run series, made guest appearances, and had a memorable starring role in Flirting with Disaster), but she increasingly spoke about her own life (and wrote two memoirs), as well as passionately campaigned for animal rights and raised money for Type 1 diabetes formerly known as juvenile diabetes. While her shows and iconic characters will live on as timeless comedy classics, Moore said in a 1997 oral history with the TV Academy about her life and career that she wanted to be remembered “as someone who always looked for the truth…Even if it wasn’t always funny.”

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Lesley Coffin is the Features/Interviews Editor for the movie site Filmoria. She has also written the books Lew Ayres: Hollywood Conscientious Objector (2012) and Hitchcock's Stars (2014), and currently writing a third book. Look for her brand new podcast, "Lake Shore Drive to Hollywood" part of the Second Wind Collective podcast network. Follow on twitter @filmbiographer for thoughts on movies and cat pictures.

1 Comment

  1. yourmomstaint

    January 27, 2017 at 8:11 am

    That march probably killed her. She likely considered the ridiculous spectacle that was put on to be an affront to her more pragmatic and realistic approach to feminism. Way to go, “ladies.” You killed an icon.