Who was Mary Tyler Moore?
The seven-time Emmy-winning actress was one of Hollywood’s most beloved TV stars, inhabiting indelible characters close to her own persona, from the ever-stylish housewife Laurie Petrie on the CBS classic sitcom “The Dick Van Dyke Show” from 1961-66 to her groundbreaking role of single career woman Mary Richards on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” from 1970-77.
But Moore, who died at age 80 in 2017 after a long battle with diabetes, remained a perpetually smiling enigma to her global audience. The HBO documentary “Being Mary Tyler Moore” (now streaming on Max) relies on rare footage and previous Moore interviews to reveal the public star who guarded her personal life. Here are the most surprising takeaways.
Mary Tyler More battled to wear pants on ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’
“The Dick Van Dyke Show” show creator Carl Reiner hired Moore after hearing the untested actress read three lines of dialogue. Moore quickly proved her comedic mettle alongside screen husband Dick Van Dyke while taking meaningful stands. She insisted that Laura wear pants, a first for a woman on network TV.
“I’ve seen all the other actresses running the vacuum with these flowered frocks and high heels on,” Moore recalled in one interview. “I don’t do that. And I don’t know any of my friends that do that. So why don’t we try to make this real?”
CBS brass was horrified, but Reiner backed his star. Laura kept the pants.
Moore said the show’s ending after five years was “devastating” because she lost her first TV family. She would later say that “Laura Petrie lived a very dull life,” relying on her husband for happiness. “She didn’t light up until Rob walked through the door.”
CBS balked at making Mary Richards a divorced woman
“Mary Tyler Moore Show” co-creators Allan Burns and James L. Brooks, working with Moore’s second husband and production partner Grant Tinker, pitched CBS the concept of the sitcom: Moore as Mary Richards, the first divorcee on TV, starting a new life working at WJM, a Minneapolis TV station. The network balked over the then-controversial notion of a divorced woman at the center of the show, especially one viewers might think was divorced from her previous TV husband Rob Petrie.
“They had to go head-to-head with CBS over the premise,” said Moore. The controversial divorcee concept was dropped, as Mary started her new life in Minneapolis after breaking off an engagement.
The documentary shows rarely-seen footage of the abandoned test pilot, before the creators worked out the kinks.
Moore led the stellar ensemble cast that included Ed Asner, Gavin MacLeod, Valerie Harper, Ted Knight and Betty White. The culture-changing sitcom was a pioneering showcase for women TV writers. Treva Silverman won the first solo writing Emmy for a woman in 1974. Accepting his Emmy for best supporting actor, Asner, who played Mary’s tough boss Lou Grant, told actors everywhere, “May you have the pleasure and joy of being with, and working with, Mary Tyler Moore.”
‘Ordinary People’ performance was shadowed by personal tragedy
“Ordinary People” director Robert Redford hired Moore because he was fascinated with the actress’ “dark side,” said Moore. The 1980 Oscar-winner for best picture features Moore as an emotionally distant upper-middle-class housewife struggling in a strained relationship with her troubled son (Timothy Hutton) who had attempted suicide.
In a case of art mirroring life, the drama reflected some of the same issues Moore faced with her own son, Richie Meeker. A month after “Ordinary People” was released, Meeker died at age 24 in a gun accident, which sparked false reports that the death was a suicide.
Moore found true love with cardiologist Robert Levine
Two years after her son’s death, the twice-divorced Moore found cardiologist Robert Levine, with whom she would spend the rest of her days. Levine was the only doctor available to make an emergency house call for Moore’s mother.
“Is acute loneliness a good enough reason to call?” Moore recalls telling Levine, 18 years her junior, at the end of the visit. Home-video footage at an intimate 1983 pre-wedding party with friends, including White, shows an emotional Moore testifying to Levine’s love.
“He got up at 2 in the morning to make a tuna fish sandwich, not for him, but for me,” Moore said, calling it “the most loving thing anyone has done for me in my life.”
Levine was at Moore’s side when she checked into the Betty Ford Center for treatment for alcohol dependence in 1984 and supported the actress, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 33 and campaigned for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, helping to raise $2 billion to fight the disease.
The couple, married for 33 years, retreated to a country home with five horses and two dogs.
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