She did more than light up the world with her smile. How television helped shape an icon.
Oh, Mary, not now.
All deaths are untimely but it seems especially unfortunate at this moment, with the country struggling to ensure and enforce the issues and rights of women and at the same time needing a good laugh, that the legendary and trailblazing Mary Tyler Moore would pass away.
It’s enough to make you throw a warm hat onto the cold ground and scream to the heavens – call it the reverse Mary Tyler Moore. Damn it, the world lost a good one.
And television, of course, lost one of its all-time greats. Moore starred in two seminal television series – The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show – infusing both with her trademark upbeat positivity and good humor, her spot-on comic timing and emotion-exact facial expressions going in the time machine of reruns and DVDs to prove definitively what perfection was.
Moore went on to earn an Oscar nomination for her role in Ordinary People, appear on Broadway and return to televisions with a string of cameo performances (and, like lot of others trying to recreate magic, some failed offerings as well), but her legacy was cemented with her two classic series but especially her eponymous breakout sensation, which cast her as a career woman, not some doting TV wife, who never married, was unlucky in love throughout but found her sea legs in an ocean of doubting men and was damned funny in the process, becoming a feminist icon with a portrayal that seared into the imagination of the country.
Equally important, Moore was a successful businesswoman and producer, joining with then-husband Grant Tinker into creating MTM Enterprises, which made The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant, Phyllis, Rhoda, The Bob Newhart Show, The White Shadow, WRKP in Cincinnati, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Newhart – it was one of the most dominant and creative production companies in television history and made some of the most important shows in television.
But Moore’s legend is rooted in what it meant to go from Laura Petrie to Mary Richards in front of the country – creative and funny and essential to husband Rob Petrie’s career (Van Dyke), Laura was way beyond just being “supportive,” with the at first unsure but wholly unstoppable Mary following up with an exclamation point not long after. We can debate whether the fictional Mary Richards was this country’s first feminist icon of the TV era (Marlo Thomas in That Girl would certainly get some votes) but she’s the one everyone remembers and fell in love with.
Along with Lucille Ball, Moore became one of the most beloved women on television and created an enduring character on one of the most popular shows ever. Fueled by an indefatigable upbeat personality that guided a thoughtful, interesting and challenging career exploration, Mary Richards — immortalized by a fantastic theme song and her now iconic hat toss — was everything to so many women who watched.
Since television (especially then) has been hailed as our nation’s shared cultural experience, it shouldn’t be surprising that creating a character who broke the boundaries of the predominant female representation on television – and navigated all the incumbent trials and tribulations with enormous warmth and constant good humor despite it all – would leave a mark.
But you didn’t have to be female and looking for inspiration to love Mary Tyler Moore or Mary Richards. The actress gave the character everything, from spunk (and yeah, her boss Lou hated spunk), vulnerability, determination, an ebullient personality that endured despite others (hi, Ted), and just an all around goodness that made you want to root for her, gender be damned. Mary just wanted to be good at her job and people watching wanted that as well. And if television at the time looked like a landscape of happy marriages and mandated coupling, well, Mary Richards never really found what she was looking for (no doubt mirroring so many others watching).
There was so much to love about the woman who never found it that it was easy for the show to pass off, without a bullhorn, the message that resonated so loudly underneath: be yourself, be happy and do what you love. You can’t make that other thing happen, but it doesn’t matter because you’re going to make it after all.
That’s a pretty impressive thing to pull off in a mere sitcom.
So, yeah, Mary Tyler Moore went a lot further than turning the world on with her smile. She helped change perceptions within it. And she will be sadly missed, now more than ever.