As stated in the theme song from her signature hit tv show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary could “turn the world on with her smile.” As a performer, Mary had it all: she could, sing, dance, and act, and she was drop-dead gorgeous. In addition, along with her second husband, Grant Tinker, she became a very successful tv executive.
Mary Tyler Moore was born on December 29, 1936 in Brooklyn, NY. She was the oldest of three children. Both of her siblings died at young ages. When Mary was eight the family moved to Los Angeles, so her father could find work.
As a youngster, Mary wanted to become a dancer. Indeed, her first job in show business was as a dancing elf in tv commercials for Hotpoint appliances, which sponsored the popular tv show, Ozzie and Harriet. She was 17 and married. The sponsor terminated her when she became pregnant, and she “showed” through her elf costume.
In the following few years Mary’s career was rather pedestrian. She tried modeling and acting with limited success. One noteworthy incident involved the comedian, Danny Thomas. Thomas had a popular comedy tv show, Make Room for Daddy. She tried out unsuccessfully for the part of Thomas’ daughter. Later, Thomas quipped “she missed [getting the part] by a nose…no daughter of mine could ever have a nose that small.”
One success was landing the role of the receptionist on the detective series, Richard Diamond, Private Detective. I actually remember that show. Mary’s face was never seen. Viewers heard her voice and saw those gorgeous legs. In addition, she guest-starred on various tv shows, such as 77 Sunset Strip, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and Hawaiian Eye.
Mary’s big break came in 1961. Despite being a relative unknown, comedian Carl Reiner tabbed her to co-star alongside Dick Van Dyke in a series he was producing based on his own career as a comedy writer. Co-Producer Danny Thomas had remembered the “girl with three names” that he had rejected years earlier and pushed her for the part. Both she and the show were huge successes. Mary’s fresh-faced, girl-next-door beauty and energetic comedy style made her an international star. I remember that, primarily because of Mary, the show was “must see” tv in our fraternity house in the mid-1960s. When she accepted her first Emmy for the show, Mary famously and modestly quipped “I know this will never happen again.” Luckily, her talent far exceeded her prognosticating skills.
For Mary, the best was yet to come. In 1970 she became the star of her own show. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was about a single woman seeking to “make it on her own,” a risky and risqué undertaking in 1970. Mary pulled it off. The show was a huge hit, and both Mary and her character became groundbreaking inspirations to women everywhere. In fact, the show yielded spin-off vehicles for three of the show’s supporting actors Valerie Harper, Ed Asner, and Cloris Leachman.
Later, Mary branched out into stage and film. Her biggest Broadway play was opposite James Naughton in Whose Life Is It Anyway. In addition, she appeared in several films during her career. Her most noteworthy was Ordinary People in which she played a serious role, that of a grieving mother unable to cope with the tragic death of one of her sons, and for which she earned an Oscar nomination.
In my opinion, the crowning achievement of her career was MTM Enterprises, which she founded with Grant Tinker, her husband at the time. MTM produced many successful tv shows, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Lou Grant, The Bob Newhart Show, and Hill Street Blues. In addition, it developed its own record label.
In addition to her stellar show business career Mary was very active in philanthropy. For instance, she was the International Chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and a strong animal rights activist. She was a longtime supporter of the ASPCA and a co-founder of Broadway Barks, an annual animal adopt-a-thon held in NYC.
Mary’s life was not without its tragedies. She suffered from diabetes and alcoholism. As I said, both of her siblings died at early ages. Furthermore, her only son, Richard, died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound. She dealt with these tragedies openly and honestly, and she persevered.
Mary earned many individual honors. She received six Emmy Awards, a special Tony Award, was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1986, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy in 1987.
However, I concur with her husband, Dr. Robert Levine who stated that her most enduring legacy will be her inspiration and influence, through both her personal life and in the characters she portrayed, on other female performers as well as working mothers and single moms. He characterized her as “fearless, determined and willful,” yet “kind, genuine, approachable, honest, and humble.” Yes, Mary was more than just a pretty face with an arresting smile. Much, much more.
Mary passed away last week from complications of pneumonia at the age of 80. Rest in peace, Mary. You will be sorely missed.