Moore, Mary Tyler

views updated May 18 2018

Mary Tyler Moore

BORN: December 29, 1936 • Brooklyn, New York

American actress, television executive

Mary Tyler Moore is best known as one of the stars of the beloved 1960s and 1970s television comedy series The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Her portrayal of the independent, spunky television news producer Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show made her a hero to many American women, who were beginning to break out of traditional feminine roles at that time. Moore also inspired feminists with her real-life success as the chairman of the board of MTM Enterprises, a television production company that created a number of successful shows in the 1970s and 1980s.

"Take chances. Make mistakes. That's how you grow. You have to fail in order to practice being brave."

Performing at an early age

Mary Tyler Moore was born on December 29, 1936, in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, George, was an auditor for a utility company. Her mother, Marjorie, was a homemaker who suffered from alcoholism, a disease that Moore herself developed later in life. In 1945, the family moved to Los Angeles, California, where her father got a job with the Southern California Gas Company.

The move to Los Angeles was not easy for Moore. She fell behind in school, and she became anxious about growing troubles in her parents' marriage. Since she had always enjoyed singing and dancing for her family, Moore began to direct her energy toward performing. She started training as a dancer, and she was excited when it turned out that she had found something at which she excelled.

When she was seventeen, Moore met Dick Meeker, a 27-year-old salesman living next door to her family. They were married the following year. Around the same time, Moore landed her first professional acting job. She played Happy Hotpoint, a tiny elf who danced on appliances, in a series of television commercials. That job came to an end in 1955, when Moore gave birth to her son, Richard.

Becoming a comic actress

Moore's dance training helped her land roles in the chorus on two different television variety shows, The Eddie Fisher Show and The George Gobel Show. Although she loved dancing, Moore was determined to become an actress. She got her first break in 1957 playing Sam, the sultry secretary on the TV detective series Richard Diamond. An unsuccessful audition for the popular Danny Thomas series Make Room for Daddy led to a tryout for a new show in 1961. Moore won the part of Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, which was produced by Danny Thomas (1914–1991) and Carl Reiner (1922–).

The Dick Van Dyke Show appeared on CBS for five years beginning in 1961. Actor Dick Van Dyke (1925–) starred as Rob Petrie, a successful television writer, and Moore played his wife. Although Laura Petrie stays home to take care of the couple's young son, Ritchie, she does not always fit into the traditional housewife role. In fact, Moore's character generated controversy by wearing cropped pants and flat shoes at a time when other TV wives wore dresses and high heels. She also participated in household decisions more than many female television characters. The Dick Van Dyke Show featured strong writing and won more than a dozen Emmy Awards (annual honors recognizing excellence in television programming), including two for Moore as Best Actress in a Comedy Series.

Moore's real-life marriage was less successful than her TV relationship, however, and she divorced Dick Meeker in 1962. A year later she married Grant Tinker, who at that time was an account executive at an advertising agency. Tinker later became president and chief executive officer of the NBC television network.

When The Dick Van Dyke Show went off the air in 1966, Moore acted in Broadway plays and motion pictures. After suffering a miscarriage, she was shocked to learn that she had diabetes, a disease in which the body loses the ability to process the sugar in food. Left untreated, diabetes can cause kidney failure, heart disease, circulation problems, or stroke. After her diagnosis, Moore monitored her diet carefully and injected herself with insulin in order to regulate the level of sugar in her blood. Moore also became an activist on behalf of diabetics, helping to raise money to fight the disease. She even served as the international chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

Starring in The Mary Tyler Moore Show

In 1969, Moore reunited with the cast of The Dick Van Dyke Show for a musical-variety special called Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman. The show was such a hit that CBS offered Moore a chance to develop her own half-hour sitcom. Along with her husband, Grant Tinker, Moore established an independent television production company called MTM Productions. The couple hired talented producers and writers, such as Jim Brooks and Allan Burns, and the creative team worked together to develop the concept for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Moore played the role of Mary Richards, a young woman who gets dumped by her boyfriend, moves to Minneapolis, and finds a job as a television news producer in a newsroom filled with eccentric characters.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show first appeared on CBS in 1970 and was a big hit with both critics and viewers. "The show played better than any of us had imagined … and surpassed even the well-wishing we'd heaped on each other," Moore recalled in her autobiography, After All. "Everyone who was present for the filming, as well as those who saw the episode, agreed that it was a winner, the cast had the easy chemistry that usually evolves after years of working together."

Moore's character, Mary Richards, introduced a new type of female role on TV as a happy, successful, independent, single working woman. She struck a chord at a time when many American women were staying single longer and building successful careers. Mary Richards became a role model in the growing women's liberation or feminist movement of the 1970s, which worked to secure equal right and opportunities for women in the United States. Moore earned three Emmy Awards as Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series for her spunky portrayal of the beloved character.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran for seven years, airing its last episode in 1977. In the meantime, Moore's company, MTM Productions, also experienced tremendous success in developing other television shows. MTM created two spin-off series revolving around popular characters from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda and Phyllis. In later years, the company also developed such television hits as The Bob Newhart Show, Hill Street Blues, WKRP in Cincinnati, The White Shadow, and St. Elsewhere.

Moore took a long break after her namesake series went off the air. When she returned to television, she decided that a variety show would be the best follow-up to her successful sitcom. Her producers assembled a cast of talented co-stars who would eventually become stars in their own right, including Michael Keaton (1951–), David Letterman (1947–), and Swoosie Kurtz. But with the variety show format losing popularity among viewers, The Mary Tyler Moore Hour lasted only eight episodes.

In 1978, Moore drew critical attention for her performance in a serious role for a television movie, First You Cry, about a woman suffering from breast cancer. In 1980, she received more praise for her performance in the play Whose Life Is It Anyway on Broadway. In 1981, she landed one of the biggest roles of her career in the film Ordinary People, directed by Robert Redford. Moore played Beth Jarrett, the rigid, demanding mother of a sensitive son who is full with guilt over his brother's death. Ordinary People earned four Academy Awards, including Best Picture of the Year, and Moore received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film.

Facing tragedy

Although Moore's professional life was soaring, her personal life was beset by tragedy and personal setbacks. In 1978, her sister Elizabeth died of a drug overdose at the age of twenty-one. In 1980, her son Richard accidentally shot himself to death. A year later, Moore and her second husband, Grant Tinker, were divorced.

Following the end of her marriage, Moore settled in New York City. In 1983, she married Dr. Robert Levine, a cardiologist who was seventeen years younger than she. With her husband's support, Moore finally decided to confront a problem that had been growing for years—her alcoholism. Realizing that her constant drinking complicated her diabetes and caused other health issues, she checked herself into a famous therapy center, the Betty Ford Clinic. With the help of the counselors there, as well as her own inner strength, she was able to get sober.

In 1984, Moore returned to work, and she appeared in a number of theatrical films and TV movies throughout the remainder of the decade. She also made a workout video, played Mary Todd Lincoln in the TV miniseries Gore Vidal's Lincoln, and played the title role in a short-lived comedy series Mary, set in a Chicago newsroom. One of the high points of her professional career came in 1985, when she was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.

Moore continued to work steadily during the 1990s and 2000s, appearing in television shows, made-for-TV movies, and theatrical films. In 1995, for instance, she starred in another short-lived television series, New York News. The following year she earned critical praise for her sassy role in Flirting with Disaster, a motion picture starring Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, and George Segal. In 2001, she once again garnered critical praise for her portrayal of con artist Sante Kimes in the television movie Like Mother, Like Son. Moore also appeared in several reunion projects with her friends from her popular 1970s series, including Mary and Rhoda (2000) and The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited (2004).

For More Information


Bonderoff, Jason. Mary Tyler Moore: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Moore, Mary Tyler. After All. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1995.


"Mary Tyler Moore." Internet Movie Database. (accessed on May 22, 2006).

Moore, Mary Tyler

views updated Jun 27 2018

MOORE, Mary Tyler

(b. 29 December 1936 in New York City), multiple-award-winning actress who created two of the most memorable characters in comedic television history: the beloved housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–1966) and the spunky single career woman Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–1977).

Moore was the oldest of three children of George Moore, a utilities company auditor, and Marjorie Hackett, a homemaker who suffered from alcoholism, a disease that plagued all her children. The family moved to Los Angeles when Moore was eight; she attended Catholic school in California, graduating in 1955 from Immaculate Heart High School. At eighteen Moore married a neighbor, a twenty-seven-year-old food salesman, Richard (Dick) Meeker, and quickly became pregnant with her son. By then, she had begun making forays into show business, appearing as a dancing elf in commercials for Hotpoint appliances. She landed her first television series role in 1959, playing Sam the switchboard operator on Richard Diamond, Private Eye. Only her legs were shown on-screen, and Moore quit after three months.

Her big break came in 1961 with the television series built around the appealing Everyman comedian Dick Van Dyke. Audiences immediately responded to the casting of the pert, sensitive Moore opposite Van Dyke, finding strong chemistry between the two as they portrayed a loving husband and wife—albeit a couple forced by the strict TV standards of the day to sleep in twin beds. The show was innovative in many respects. Up until then, situation comedies had focused almost exclusively on domestic life, but The Dick Van Dyke Show spent as much time at the lead character's workplace, where he was a writer for a variety show. The series creator and supporting actor Carl Reiner drew on his own real-life experiences as a writer for The Sid Caesar Show and in the process cast a revealing behind-the-scenes light on the magic of show business.

While Moore's character, Laura Petrie, was in most respects a traditional suburban housewife, she did break one television barrier: she was the first homemaker to wear pants on-screen. Most comedies featured perfectly attired women in dresses and pearls, which they wore even while vacuuming, but Moore insisted that pants were more realistic. Her Capri-pants-and-flats look became a fashion benchmark. Moore first demonstrated her comic potential in an early episode entitled "Blond-Haired Brunette," in which a botched dye job leaves her half-blond. She explains the disaster to Van Dyke through sobs, rolled eyes, and gulping speech as the audience roars with laughter. After that, she was no longer confined to the role of "straight man" to Van Dyke's antics. Other memorable episodes featured her sliding down a pile of walnuts in a dream sequence and gamely enduring as her toe remains stuck in a bathtub faucet for an entire show.

As Moore shaped her character, she looked to her two role models, Lucille Ball and Katharine Hepburn. Ball owned the studio where the show was filmed and dropped by the set occasionally. She often laughed at funny moments during filming—the ultimate compliment to Moore and the rest of the cast. A high point for Moore came when Ball one day stopped her to say, "You're very good." The series brought Moore lead-actress Emmy Awards in 1964 and 1966 and a Golden Globe Award in 1965.

In 1961 Moore divorced her husband after six years of marriage. Two years later she married the television executive Grant Tinker—a relationship that later assured her the chance to take on her most groundbreaking television role. First, however, Moore tried her hand at feature films. She found that she was upstaged by Julie Andrews and Carol Channing in 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie and then tepidly received in several other movie roles, including her 1969 portrayal of a nun opposite Elvis Presley in the critically panned Change of Habit. Her personal life was also rocky: she suffered a miscarriage in 1966 and then was diagnosed with diabetes, a disease that eventually led her to become a spokeswoman for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

Finally, Moore favorably caught the attention of audiences and television executives in a 1969 television variety show that reunited her with Dick Van Dyke. The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) gave the green light to the development of a new television series built around Moore; she and her husband co-founded the production company MTM Enterprises to work on the project, with Moore as chairwoman. The development of the new show reflected the emerging women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Women were increasingly pursuing careers instead of stay-at-home marriages, as they demanded more political and social rights along with sexual freedom. The television series That Girl starring Marlo Thomas (1966–1971) had paved the way for a show about a single career woman. In 1970 Moore became Mary Richards, a producer climbing the ranks at a Minneapolis television news station, in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The show's development ran afoul of CBS executives when they learned that Richards was to play a divorcee. Fearing that audiences would associate the divorce with the popular Van Dyke, executives insisted that she instead simply be on the rebound from a serious relationship. Unlike That Girl, there was no steady boyfriend in the lead character's life; The Mary Tyler Moore Show became increasingly bold in suggesting that Richards had an active sex life. Distinguished by its insightful writing and memorable supporting characters, the series ran for seven seasons and won twenty-nine Emmys. Moore herself was nominated in the lead-actress category every year and won in 1973, 1974, and 1976.

Moore's career never again hit the same comedic stride. For several years she enjoyed a growing reputation as a skilled dramatic actress, winning praise with her portrayal of a paralyzed sculptor in the Broadway play Whose Life Is It, Anyway? in 1980. Also in 1980 she was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of a cold mother in the film Ordinary People, a role for which she won a Golden Globe Award. Despite her success as an actress, Moore was entering the most trying period in her life. Her only son died in 1980 from a self-shooting that was ruled accidental, and she divorced Tinker in 1981. In 1983 she married her third husband, Robert Levine, a cardiologist eighteen years her junior. The following year Moore checked herself into the Betty Ford Clinic for treatment for alcoholism. The disease already had claimed the life of her younger sister, who died of an alcohol-and-drug overdose in 1978; her brother died of cancer in 1991 while in recovery from alcoholism.

Moore's attempts to return to series television flopped in quickly canceled shows during the 1980s and 1990s. She was named to the Television Hall of Fame in 1985. During the 1990s she made varyingly successful television movie appearances; her portrayal of an illegal adoption trafficker in Stolen Babies (1993) won her another Emmy Award. Even as the twentieth century ended, the enduring legacy of the Mary Richards role continued with television retrospectives, specials, and even a commemorative statue built in downtown Minneapolis depicting the famous Mary Tyler Moore Show opening: Moore tossing her hat into the air to celebrate "making it after all."

In The Complete Directory to Prime Time TV Stars, Moore was equated with Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett and dubbed "one of the great comediennes of American television." People magazine, naming Moore one of its top twenty-five stars in 1989, put it another way: "More than any other TV performer, Mary used charm to win us: She became America's sweetheart."

Moore's autobiography, After All, was published in 1995. A biography is Jason Ponderoff, Mary Tyler Moore (1986). She was profiled in the New York Times Magazine (26 Nov. 1995).

Leigh Dyer

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