Mary Tyler Moore, one of the most beloved and honored actresses in television history, died Wednesday in a Greenwich, Connecticut, hospital. The star of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was 80.
Moore, who had been the CEO of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 33, and had struggled with the effects of the disease in recent years. In 2011, Moore underwent brain surgery to remove a benign tumor. A cause of death was not immediately given, although various reports said she had recently contracted pneumonia, and had died from cardiac arrest.
“She was an impressive person and a talented person and a beautiful person. A force of nature,” producer, creator and director Carl Reiner, who created the “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” told The Associated Press. “She’ll last forever, as long as there’s television. Year after year, we’ll see her face in front of us.”
A striking brunette with the poise and grace of the dancer she had trained to become, Moore was not destined to command prime time by merely her looks or poise, but with that grace which was hard to define — generations of critics and casual fans certainly tried. A laugh that seemed to emerge deep from the recesses of her being, and a sob, too, Moore’s display of emotion was at once subtle and visceral, usually to hilarious effect, occasionally otherwise.
Moore combined frailty with strength, vulnerability with resolve. She seemed imbued with a sense that life’s cruelties and absurdities could humiliate but couldn’t vanquish — that she would always make it, after all.
But if her core was difficult to locate, it was also the source of her power and mystery as an actress. Beyond the wide smile and easy elegance of Mary Richards and Laura Petrie — “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” respectively — viewers sensed a certain aloneness, even loneliness.
Robert Redford certainly sensed that when he cast her in 1980s “Ordinary People,” for which she received an Oscar nomination. Fans of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” did as well, acutely so in the closing minutes of the series in 1977, when Mary tearfully said goodbye to her colleagues at WJM.
In an interview years later, she said that ending both her TV shows was emotionally wrenching for her because, “It was the end of a family — and it was not the family I ever felt comfortable with as a child. I felt at home with these people, felt comfortable, loved and supported.” Her life was a fairy tale and tragedy. At the height of her fame, her only son, Richard, 24, was killed in a shooting accident. She battled alcoholism. She wrote two books, or confessionals, chronicling her life and struggles, revealing that she had been abused by a family friend when she was 6, and that her father was coldly aloof, her mother an alcoholic. Of Mary Richards — considered one of TV’s first feminists — she once said, “I didn’t feel that separate from the character I was playing.”
She also became a TV power broker, along with then-husband Grant Tinker, as co-chief of MTM, one of TV’s most influential independent production companies. She and Tinker met on the set of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” married in 1962, and launched MTM in 1969. She starred in its first in-house production, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which spawned three spinoffs — “Lou Grant,” “Rhoda” and “Phyllis.”
Mary Richards was a single 30-year-old who moved to Minneapolis, where she got a job at WJM. She played an independent career woman on a show that was both a workplace and homeplace sitcom. Of the latter, her landlady was Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman) and upstairs neighbor, Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper). Harper’s Morgenstern was to become another TV icon of the decade. The workplace part was where TV history was forged. Marlo Thomas’ ‘60s comedy, “That Girl,” had blazed part of the trail for Moore, who would finish the job. Mary Richards was the newsroom’s emotional and professional center. Boss Lou Grant was lovable and gruff. Weatherman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) was a preening nitwit. Sue Ann Nivens, the “Happy Homemaker,” was the man-hungry homewrecker. Writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod) was the office cutup and wiseguy.
Mary was simply Mary — a complicated human being in a complicated world, who refused to be relegated to a stereotype. She was also television’s most fully realized female character to that point, and the nation embraced her. So did the industry: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was nominated for 67 Emmys and won 29. Moore won three outstanding actress Emmys (along with two for “The Dick Van Dyke Show”).
After “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” ended, a line of respectfully reviewed TV movies followed, along with four more CBS series. The first was “Mary” (1978), a variety-comedy show, lasted only three telecasts, followed by “The Mary Tyler Moore Hour” (1979), another part-variety, part-sitcom amalgam. She tried “Mary” one more time — this one a sitcom set at a newspaper, which struggled during the 1985 season. Finally, the sitcom “Annie McGuire,” with Moore as a newly married civil servant, lasted just two months in 1988.
The run soured her on TV, and she considered never returning. By then, she had also moved back to New York, in part to focus on stage projects — she won a Tony in 1980 for “Whose Life is it Anyway?” — but was ambivalent about that as well. In an interview with Newsday in 1995, she admitted to an “odd combination of emotions that I go into the theater with. It’s a love-hate experience that is so exhausting, and from an emotional standpoint it becomes a real fight to keep it fresh night after night. Sometimes it’s an uphill battle you don’t always win and hopefully the audience isn’t always aware of.”
Her last series in a semi-lead role essentially ended a glorious TV career once and for all. “New York News,” about another passion of Moore’s, the New York tabloid wars, was thrown up against “Seinfeld” with predictable results. At the time, Moore said, “It is exactly that lack of control that makes me not a hundred percent enthusiastic about the medium of television.”
Moore was born on Dec. 29, 1936, in Brooklyn. When she was 8, the family moved to Los Angeles, where she was determined to become a dancer. She later said, “I wanted to be a star dancer, but they weren’t making musicals anymore” so she turned to acting. She was the “Happy Hotpoint” elf in TV commercials in the mid-50s, and got a voice role on “Richard Diamond, Private Detective.” She played a telephone operator, but viewers could only see her legs. Both legs and voice got her guest roles on a pair of big hits, “77 Sunset Strip” and “Hawaiian Eye.”
Moore later auditioned to play Danny Thomas’ daughter on another hit-to-be, “Make Room for Daddy,” but didn’t get the job. Instead she got something much better: A referral from Thomas to Reiner, who was looking for someone to play Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” She got the role and a star was born.
“During the first year of ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show,’ as thrilled and bursting with excitement over my work as I was, I was equally without emotion at home,” she later wrote of her foundering marriage, to Richard Meeker. They divorced the year “Dick Van Dyke” launched in 1961. She was also a relatively new mother, and wrote: “There is no question about it. By the time Richie was 5, I had already let him down. When he needed me the most, I was busier and even more self-concerned than I had been when he was an impressionable infant.”
She later wrote of her son’s drug problems, and her own battle with alcoholism: “I can recall with sickening clarity that on more than one occasion I played Russian roulette with my car. What’s more, some unwary, innocent people played with me.”
By 1980, she had returned to New York City to star in “Whose Life” — about a sculptor who was paralyzed — but on Oct. 15 of that year got a call from Tinker at 5 in the morning. He told her Richie had died in a gun accident.
Moore and Tinker divorced in 1980. She was married to Dick Meeker, a salesman, from 1955 to 1961. In 1983, Moore married cardiologist S. Robert Levine, her only immediate survivor.
In a career that spanned more than six decades, Mary Tyler Moore’s successes spanned beyond her television stardom. Here are some career highlights:
“Richard Diamond, Private Detective” (1957-60) (voice only)
“The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-66) (two best comedy actress Emmys)
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-77) (three best comedy actress Emmys)
“First You Cry” (1978) (TV movie as newswoman Betty Rollins)
“The Mary Tyler Moore Hour” (1979)
“Lincoln” miniseries (1988) as Mary Todd Lincoln (Emmy nomination)
“Annie McGuire” (1988-89)
“Stolen Babies” TV movie (1993) (dramatic actress Emmy)
“New York News” (1995)
“Mary and Rhoda” TV movie (2000)
“Thoroughly Modern Millie” (1967)
“Change of Habit” (1969)
“Ordinary People” (1980) (best actress Oscar nomination)
“Six Weeks” (1982)
“Just Between Friends” (1986)
“Flirting With Disaster” (1996)
“Whose Life Is It Anyway?” (February-May 1980) (special Tony Award)
“Sweet Sue” (January-May 1987)
“After All” (1995)
“Growing Up Again: Life, Loves, and Oh Yeah, Diabetes” (2009)