Something happened this week that took the media’s attention away from politics. For several hours on Wednesday, the cable channels could talk of nothing else. It was the loss of an iconic American actress, Mary Tyler Moore, who died at age 80 in a Connecticut hospital.
During her years as a co-star of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and later the star of her own show, Moore spanned the transition from “safe,” uncontroversial TV to a new age, showcasing different kinds of characters and situations. Many feel that Moore herself was partly responsible for that revolution.
A wife and mother in the first show, which aired from 1960 to 1966, Moore portrayed “Mary Richards,” a single career woman, working as a TV news producer in her own show. By the time it premiered in 1970 the culture had undergone tumultuous changes, and the “white picket fence” comedies featuring nuclear families, like Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and even Dick Van Dyke gave way to shows meant to appeal to a hipper demographic.
On the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary is portrayed as unfailingly polite and friendly, but she fights to break the glass ceiling at work, engages in pre-marital sex, and seems to have no eagerness to marry. She works surrounded by men but lives in an apartment in a residential area of Minneapolis. Much of the comedy is derived from contrasting Mary’s “straight-man” to her colorful colleagues and friends, including neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern, the wisecracking Jewish girl from New York who lives upstairs.
Downstairs is Phyllis Lindstrom, her landlady, who is married to a doctor. Phyllis mentions this fact almost every time she sees Mary, trying ineffectively to lord her marital status over “poor Mary.”
But Mary doesn’t bite. Instead, she is a master of “biting her tongue,” as the narcissists around her preen and look foolish. Chief among them is anchorman Ted Baxter, whose stereotypical egomania and dim wittedness are enriched by a childlike sweetness. His girlfriend, and later wife, Georgette, is a good match for him in both tender-heartedness and IQ.
My favorite of the narcissists is Sue Ann Nivens, the station’s homegrown Martha Stewart type, who is nakedly ambitious in her quest for ratings and stature. She is also TV’s first “cougar,” a woman whose unself-conscious sexual pursuit of men, young and old, makes her a true pioneer in TV land.
Mary’s boss, the gruff Lou Grant, and the head writer, Murray Slaughter, are equally well-drawn characters, and the WJM newsroom was one of the first places that reflected the fact that many people, spending more time than ever at work, had significant ties to colleagues.
In many ways, they functioned like families and took their place. Although we hear about Murray’s wife, Marie, and Phyllis’ husband, Lars, neither ever makes an appearance on the show, another Mary Tyler Moore innovation.
Life imitated art insofar as Mary Tyler Moore had her own production company (whose logo, a meowing kitten, spoofed MGM’s roaring lion), and she had significant creative control over the production. Over the course of its run, the show won a record number of Emmy awards during its seven- year run, and when the final episode aired, it was a national event.
Though known as a flawless comedienne, Moore went on to prove herself as an actress of great range, taking on dramatic roles, like the cold, distant mother in the film Ordinary People (1980), which brought her an Oscar nomination. In this film she plays someone as unlike her TV persona as possible: selfish, lacking empathy, and brittle. In reality, she was more like her TV self, an activist for animal rights, as well for diabetes and alcoholism, both of which she suffered from.
One major difference between her public and private images was that she had endured a life of great suffering. Both her parents were neglectful alcoholics, and she went to live with an aunt to escape them. She lost both her brothers early, was divorced twice, and most tragically, lost her only child when he accidentally shot off a gun with a hair trigger.
But she became known as the woman who could “turn the world on with her smile,” and viewers warmed to her like a good friend. As she modeled for us the ultimate good sport, she also showed women that they could be strong, independent, and ambitious without losing any grace, kindness, or dignity. She will be missed.