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Mary Tyler Moore Remembered: She Made It, After All

Off screen as well as on, the talented actress reminded us of the power of resiliency and reinvention

“Because I’m American, and I’m not a stone. That’s why I like Mary Tyler Moore. Basically because I think, between her and Jackie Kennedy, they shaped this country. … Between Laura Petrie and Mary Richards, it’s what shaped America’s whole taste level.” — designer Isaac Mizrahi in the documentary “Unzipped”

Everyone knows that Mary Tyler Moore pulled off that rarest of TV feats, hopping from one hugely popular, universally acclaimed landmark sitcom, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-1966), to another, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-1977).

But people rarely discuss that period in between, in which her career was anything but booming. Sure, there was a supporting role in the hit movie musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” but she also starred in legendary disasters both on Broadway (Moore played Holly Golightly in a musical version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” that closed in previews) and in Hollywood (“Change of Habit” featured her as a nun torn between Jesus and Elvis).

So the success of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was anything but a foregone conclusion, and more than one book — most notably Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s “Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted” — has been written about the many ways in which the show’s launch was plagued with difficulties and might have flopped at any moment.

That the series (spearheaded by Moore and then-husband Grant Tinker) became a TV legend should give struggling writers hope, but it’s Moore’s career that really provides a beacon of resilience and reinvention to those who feel like they’ve hit a wall.

She overcame diabetes and alcoholism and failed marriages and the death of her son and typecasting and just kept bouncing back. Like the famous theme song for her eponymous sitcom promised, she was going to make it, after all.

Born in Brooklyn in 1936, Moore embraced dancing at an early age, and she became a fixture of early television, whether or not audiences knew it — she played the elfin “Happy Hotpoint” in a series of appliance commercials for “Ozzie and Harriet,” followed by a gig as the receptionist on “Richard Diamond, Private Eye” (1957-1960). To add to the latter character’s sense of mystery, Moore’s voice was heard but only her legs were ever seen.

As the capri-pants-clad Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” she brought a new dynamic to the sitcom wife — sexy and ebullient, supportive but independent, neither shrewish nor dowdy. But this breakthrough was only a warm-up for her own show, which would give second-wave feminism a voice in America’s living rooms.

In an era where female TV writers were few and far between, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” hired talented scribes like Treva Silverman, Marilyn Suzanne Miller (who would go on to be one of the original voices behind “SNL”), Susan Silver, Patricia Nardo and others, giving them the opportunity to put the 1970s female experience — both in the workplace and on the dating scene — onto a major network.

Like Laura Petrie before her, Mary Richards was a new kind of TV leading lady: CBS wouldn’t let the character be divorced, but for those paying attention, this single girl was sexually active (they slipped in a joke or two about The Pill) but her life didn’t revolve around snagging a husband. She had a career, and she was good at it — even if she was toiling at a decidedly second-rate TV station — and her life was filled with her work and her chosen family of close friends.

Moore wisely allowed herself to be the “straight man,” giving wise-crackers like Valerie Harper’s Rhoda and Gavin McLeod’s Murray or narcissists like Ted Knight’s Ted Baxter or Betty White’s Sue Ann Nivens the big laughs. But Moore’s comic timing was brilliant, and her own moments of slapstick or deadpan retort (as when her character realized she had been on “two…thousand…DATES!”) or breaking down in laughter (the legendary “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode) always landed.

Three of her six career Emmys are for Outstanding Lead Actress on a Comedy Series for “MTM,” and she deserves at least one of them just for the inspired bit of pantomime in the show’s opening credits in which she resignedly tosses a steak into her shopping cart.

Her post-sitcom period was a bit fallow as well; she returned to CBS in 1978 with the variety show “Mary” (featuring up-and-coming ensemble members David Letterman, Swoosie Kurtz and Michael Keaton) which met a quick demise and was soon followed by “The Mary Tyler Moore Hour,” a hybrid sitcom set backstage at a variety show, which also tanked. But two years later, she would wow critics and audiences with a completely against-type performance in “Ordinary People,” Robert Redford’s directorial debut.

The character of Beth was about as far from the cheery, warm Mary Richards as a performer could get: After the death of her beloved older son, this grief-stricken mother withholds affection from her surviving child (played by Timothy Hutton) and husband (Donald Sutherland) alike. Brittle and image-conscious, Beth was an unforgettable character, made all the more so for Moore’s powerful and unsparing portrayal, one that upended any premises about her limitations as a performer. (It also earned her an Oscar nomination.)

In a just world, “Ordinary People” would have been the launchpad for a stunning third act for Mary Tyler Moore as a serious dramatic actress, but the opportunities that should have arisen didn’t.

Her big-screen follow-up, “Six Weeks,” was a lachrymose affair, and while she won raves (and a Tony) for playing a terminal patient onstage in “Whose Life Is It, Anyway?” (a role originally written for a man), subsequent triumphs were sporadic. (They include the wonderful HBO movie “Finnegan Begin Again,” directed by Joan Micklin Silver; David O. Russell’s hilarious “Flirting with Disaster”; and the 1993 TV movie “Stolen Babies,” for which she received her final Emmy.)

Moore has left us at age 80, but her legacy lives on, not only in the MTM Enterprises company which bears her name (and produced such legendary TV series as “The Bob Newhart Show,” “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “Hill Street Blues,” all featuring that famous “meow” logo at the end) but also in the indelible performances that have influenced a generation of artists from Mizrahi to Tina Fey, whose “30 Rock” could be seen as a 21st-century spin on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Let us all throw our hat in the air like Mary Richards, and try to make this nothing day suddenly seem worthwhile.