If Mary Tyler Moore had never done anything else with her life then she probably could have found success selling toothpaste. She had the biggest, warmest smile you ever saw, one that stretched from ear to ear. It was her trademark. She turned the world on with it.
Moore, who died Wednesday less than a month after her 80th birthday, leaves us at an ironic moment just as women are converging on Washington demanding their recognition for their basic human dignity. 40 years ago, it was she was led the charge at a moment when women were leaving the confines of their second-class social status to make their own way in the world. After playing a perpetual housewife Laura Petrie on the immortal Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore set out into the television landscape equipped with a sense of style and a sense of humor all her own. She was the forerunner to Murphy Brown, “Sex and the City”’s Carrie Bradshaw, “30 Rock”’s Liz Lemon. Before even Peggy Carter or Sarah Conner, there was Mary Tyler Moore.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was an enigma to the television revolution of the 1970s. At a moment when “All in the Family” and “Maude” and “The Jeffersons” and “Sanford and Son” were extolling the cold, hard facts about the world we live in, “Mary Tyler Moore” was aiming in another direction. The adventures of television producer Mary Richards was giving a generation of young women a portrait of a woman on her own in the world, one whose pursuits weren’t cemented in landing a man but in attempting to remain independent, making her own way and building a career for herself.
On the show, Mary headed out on her own, for Minneapolis after a broken engagement (the original concept had her as a divorcee but at the time the subject was a little controversial). She barely unpacked her suitcase in The Twin Cities when she found work at WJN, a local television station. The secretary job was filled, so she was offered the job of Associate producer by the station’s world-weary news producer Lou Grant who famously told his new employee “You got spunk . . . I hate spunk!”
The show was not a rallying cry for women’s lib, like “Maude” but was a much more sophisticated statement, a workplace sitcom about people we liked with a girl at the center that we couldn’t help but fall in love with. She was funny and charming and always with a sense of style – her wardrobe on that show is a monument to a decade that seemed dead set against it.
Mary’s tour-de-force? That’s easy. “Chuckles Bites the Dust” a brilliant piece of comedy writing that finds everyone at WJN cracking jokes over the tragic death of the station’s beloved kiddie show icon Chuckles the Clown after he is shelled to death by a rogue elephant during a parade while dressed as a peanut. Mary shames her co-workers for their insensitive attitude but it is she who can’t hold it together during Chuckles’ memorial service at which she struggles not to burst into laughter particularly when the good reverend breaks into Chuckles signature catchphrase: “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”
I watched every episode in order from Mary’s job interview all the way through to the timeless final episode when everyone, save for bumbling newsman Ted Baxter, got canned. They marched confidently out the door singing the old World War I music hall standard “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” as Mary turned with sad eyes at the newsroom that had been her home for seven years. But then she smiled a smile that seemed to say “Well, life goes on,” and turned out the lights.
I was late to the party. I was only 6 years-old when “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” went off the air in 1977 but I caught up with it many years later when TV Land began running reruns. I’d never seen this show before so its textures were new to me. I was familiar with Archie Bunker and Fred Sanford but this was something different. The characters didn’t squabble about this and that. They loved each other dearly and there was a unity to their work. I know it sound corny but I think that show taught me that I don’t have to hate my co-workers, that I can find friends in my work mates and that the relationships I build there can last a lifetime.
Much of that came from Mary. Within this colorful group of characters remained this attractive and charming woman that you wanted to have coffee with. It was Mary, and you sensed that she didn’t really need to find the character.
There was nothing mean or sour about Mary. Maybe that’s why her role in Ordinary People was such a revelation. As Beth Jarett, she’s the opposite of Mary Richards. A woman who so isolates the death of her eldest son that she can’t make room for the pain that is destroying her younger son Conrad and pulling her marriage to her husband Calvin into pieces. It was a brilliant piece of acting that brought her only Oscar nomination, unfortunately in the same year the Sissy Spacek played Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter. Moore never had a film role that effective again.
Years later, around the time that I was discovering “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Moore came out with her autobiography titled “After All.” To this day it is the only autobiography I’ve ever read. In it she revealed that the Mary persona was not always easy to maintain. She was sexually abused as a child by a neighbor and struggled to find affection from her father. She was the veteran of two failed marriages, one when she was just eighteen and the other, a 19-year marriage to NBC CEO Grant Tinker. She recalled a roller coaster of events that transpired around the time of Ordinary People culminating in the accidental death of her son Ritchie. She talked about her alcoholism, her struggle with diabetes. She wanted people to understand that there was a person behind that trademark smile, that she was a survivor.
I wasn’t surprised that she struggled, even as I read the book. Everyone struggles, everyone has demons, and everyone has a skeleton in the closet. It’s reassuring that she could come clean about the worst parts of her life, but through it all, we still loved her. As I said, there was nothing mean or sour about Mary Tyler Moore. There are no bad stories, no tell-all books waiting to be written. She seemed to be a welcomed ray of sunshine in a world dead-set against it. She was good-hearted in a world of cynicism. Yet, she never obscured that a real person lurked beneath that smile. There is a dark side. I tend not to be as optimistic as Mary Richards. I have an anger in me that I carry from my childhood experiences — I expect a lot of myself and I’m not too kind to myself.