The New York Times said she “incarnated the modern woman on TV”. That is about the best summary I can come up with for this legendary woman. I can remember as a small child watching my parents watch her antics on the Mary Tyler Moore Show (yes, I am that old) and loving her wit and her grace, without really knowing exactly what that meant.
She was born on December 29, 1936 in Brooklyn, New York and was the eldest of three children. The family moved to Los Angeles when Mary was eight where she studied acting and dancing. She got her start in commercials because of her “lovely legs” as “Happy Hotpoint”, a dancing elf, in the mid50’s. Her big break was in 1961 when she was cast as Laura Petrie, the wife on the Dick Van Dyke Show. Her talent as a comedian won her Emmys in 1964 and 1966. When the show ended its run in 1966, Mary focused on musical theater and movies. It was not until 1970 that she hit big on television again.
With her husband, Grant Tinker, they produced the Mary Tyler Moore Show through their company MTM Enterprises. I’m sure you remember their logo with the mewing cat in place of the roaring MGM lion. It’s one of my first TV memories. Mary produced, wrote and starred in the groundbreaking series about changing attitudes about women in the workplace. With an all star cast including familiar names such as Ed Asner Gavin MacLeod, Ted Knight, Betty White, Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman, the show tackled issues such as the wage gap. Mary’s presence as an anxious but sisterly presence soothed some of the worries about women in the workplace. The show became a cultural zeitgeist and Mary Richards, Mary’s character, became a feminist icon. The Mary Tyler Moore Show won numerous Emmys including several for Mary for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress. The show aired it’s final episode in 1977, but the production company went on to produce many other shows. Hits such as The Bob Newhart Show, Tax, Hill Street Blues, Remington Steele, Cheers are among the notables they were responsible for bringing to the small screen.
After the Mary Tyler Moore Show ended, Mary went back to film. She received an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of an emotionally guarded mother in Ordinary People. Personally, she endured tragedy as her only son, Richard, died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1980. Around this time, she checked into the Betty Ford Clinic for treatment for alcoholism This was a disease which her own mother and sister struggled with as well. She also struggled with diabetes, which caused heart and kidney problems as well as sight loss in later years. In 2011, Mary had a benign tumor removed from her brain, but was well enough to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2012.
Mary was a devout vegetarian as well as an outspoken advocate for animal welfare. She passed on January 25, 2017 from complications from pneumonia. Although she did many roles in her storied career, I like many others will always remember her as the iconic figure depicted in the opening credits on the Mary Tyler Moore Show and enshrined in a statue in downtown Minneapolis. Head tipped back, huge smile and throwing her hat in the air. You’re gonna make it after all.