Money & Careers

Mary Tyler Moore: Feminist and Fabulous

Mention the name Mary Tyler Moore and what probably comes to mind is her television show — named after herself — which premiered 45 years ago, in September 1970. Thoughts of the situation-comedy unleash a flood of funny memories: Lou Grant telling Mary Richards that she has spunk. . .and that he hates spunk, Mary laughing uncontrollably at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown and the WJM staff trying to find Kleenex without breaking a group hug in the series finale.

For seven seasons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show made it necessary — even for college students — to stay in on Saturday nights to watch television.

The laughs are what linger in memory, but the show and Mary Tyler Moore had a profound effect on the way Americans viewed women in the workplace. On the nightly news, coverage of the feminist movement put the issue of equal rights front and center. On her show, Mary Tyler Moore was illustrating what life might look like for an unmarried woman — not exactly brimming with confidence — trying to support herself in a changing world. While feminists were often criticized for being humorless, The Mary Tyler Moore Show relied on humor to make its points.

PBS acknowledges this in the documentary Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration, which was produced by Steven Boettcher and Michael J. Trinklein and airs Tuesday, Oct. 13, at 8 p.m. Eastern time (check local listings).

“I think Mary Tyler Moore has had more influence on my career than any other single person or force,” Oprah Winfrey says in the documentary. The influence was so significant, Winfrey says, that for many years she tried unsuccessfully to get a job in Minneapolis, which was the setting for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The documentary goes beyond the groundbreaking series, showing how Moore’s career unfolded in the early days and the accomplishments (and failures) she had after The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended. She had two variety shows — including one that had David Letterman and Michael Keaton as regulars — that didn’t catch on. She got an Academy Award nomination for her role in the film Ordinary People, which was directed by Robert Redford.

Included in the documentary are interviews with Dick Van Dyke, Carl Reiner, Betty White, Valerie Harper, Ed Asner and Cloris Leachman, among others.

“Mary Tyler Moore was both inspirational and aspirational for many women who came of age in the 1970s,” said Donald Thoms, vice president of programming for PBS. “Her demeanor, style and beauty, along with her fierce loyalty to friends, was evidenced throughout her long and successful career, and radiated both on screen and off. PBS has a long history of documenting the lives and accomplishments of America’s great cultural icons. This salute to Ms. Moore is a tribute to her successful career and her place in American entertainment.”

And the documentary reminds us of what Moore’s show ingrained in all of us: “You’re gonna make it after all.”

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  • Deborah Harkins October 12, 2015 at 11:15 am

    Ah, Lou and Mary! Who can forget “I hate spunk,” not to mention this exchange:

    Lou: “How old are you?”

    Mary: “I’m thirty.” (Brightening) “How old do I look?”

    Lou (scowling): “Thirty.”

    Thirty was a significant age for a woman back then; if she hadn’t married by thirty, our culture considered her (horrors!) an old maid. That’s why it was surprising to see a lead character who had reached 30 with marrying . . . who didn’t even have a boyfriend!. . . who wasn’t simply a jokey sidekick, but a good-looking, smart, sweet, funny, endearing, ambitious, and very likable human being. Yes, this was a feminist show.