“Take chances, make mistakes. That’s how you grow. Pain nourishes your courage, you have to fail in order to practice being brave.” – Mary Tyler Moore
These words are an appropriate summary of Mary Tyler Moore’s more than five decades in show business. Moore seized opportunities when they came her way, from her first television roles in Hotpoint Appliance commercials in 1955 to her career defining roles in The Dick Van Dyke Show and later in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She wasn’t afraid to take chances – several series that she starred in after her eponymous sitcom failed, including a CBS show called “Mary” that was cancelled after 13 episodes in 1986. However, even without these shows being commercial successes, Moore continues to be a household name as we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show on March 19, 1977.
Moore was born in Brooklyn on December 23, 1936; her family moved to LA when she was 8. A dancer, she started her television career out at the age of 17 as “Happy Hotpoint”, a dancing elf in Hotpoint Appliance commercials. After “Happy”, she guest-starred on a number of television programs, one of the most notable being a recurring role on Richard Diamond, Private Detective. What made this role particularly memorable was that her character was always portrayed only by a voice and her enviable legs, often with one shoe dangling from her toe.
In 1961, the role of Laura Petrie, the wife of Dike Van Dyke on The Dick Van Dyke Show, made Moore a household name, as well as a fashion and comedy icon. The show aired from 1961 to 1966 and Moore won two Emmy awards and a Golden Globe for her performance. When The Dick Van Dyke Show wrapped, Moore concentrated on a relatively unremarkable film career before returning to television with The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired for 7 seasons from 1970-1977, was rather unique for its time. It was one of the first shows to depict an unmarried woman in her 30s who who wasn’t just looking to get married and settle down. Moore’s character, Mary Richards, moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul after breaking up with her fiance and got a job in a newsroom at a television station, WJM. Her character’s coworkers and neighbors included characters played by Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman, Betty White and Valerie Harper. Set pieces and some social norms aside, the themes of the episodes – a disastrous blind date, uncomfortable family situations, and trying to decide where one’s career should go – still resonate today. The show did not shy away from controversial sitcom topics (at the time) such as women’s rights, divorce, pre-marital sex, and death, deriving comedy from exploring these situations. The show was a massive commercial success – it spent 6 of 7 seasons in the top 20 shows and garnered 3 Emmy Awards for best series from 1975-1977.
Despite her successes, Moore’s life has certainly not been without pain or courage. She had a troubled childhood with an alcoholic mother; she and her first husband divorced after 6 years of marriage; and their son, Richie, was killed at age 24 when a gun he was handling misfired. Her second marriage, to Grant Tinker, a television executive with whom she founded her production company MTM Enterprises, also failed. At the age of 33, Moore was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; she is currently the International Chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International. She has also suffered from alcoholism and earlier this year had surgery to remove a benign tumor in her skull.
Through it all, though, Moore has retained the ability to make us laugh, again and again. Along with two other groundbreaking female comedy luminaries – Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett – Moore paved the way for today’s great comedic actresses and writers such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig. Her influence can also be seen in this year’s crop of women-centered television comedies such as New Girl and 2 Broke Girls, and even the hit movie Bridesmaids. Earlier this year, Moore was honored with a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Dick Van Dyke. It was a worthy honor indeed for a strong, funny woman who still “turns the world on with her smile” and has never been afraid to “fail in order to practice being brave”.