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Mary Tyler Moore's comedic grace and tremendous talent, in 5 performances

She was a legend for a reason.

Mary Tyler Moore
Mary Tyler Moore, during the filming of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
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Mary Tyler Moore is one of the greatest TV stars of all time. She was a pivotal part of not just one but two classic sitcoms, and she was a welcome presence as a guest star right up into her 70s.

Moore, who died Wednesday, January 25, at the age of 80, is probably best known for her work on The Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran from 1961-66, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970-77. And yes, she was known for her warmth, her sense of humor, and her able mastery of comedic set pieces. But she was also tremendously gifted at just about anything you could throw at her.

If you haven’t been exposed to Moore’s extraordinarily versatile greatness, here are five performances that showcase her many strengths.

The Dick Van Dyke Show, “Coast to Coast Big Mouth” (1965)

The producers of The Dick Van Dyke Show realized very quickly that the best use of Moore was to put her at the center of a scene where she felt anxious or ashamed for some reason, then force her to keep plugging along. Many of her best scenes across her career involve her normally warm and proper characters having breakdowns — often at wildly inappropriate times.

Here’s an early example of the form, from the final season of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Having been called to compete on a game show, Laura Petrie ably navigates the host’s fusillade of questions about her husband’s boss: TV star Alan Brady (Carl Reiner). Thinking she’s in the clear, however, she slips up — and admits that Alan wears a toupee on live television.

Moore is a delight throughout the episode, but especially when she’s trying to figure out how best to tell her husband what happened while also telling him about the prizes she won (her pantomime of a rotisserie is the best bit). Then, when she goes to Alan’s office to personally apologize, we get a scene where both Reiner and Moore are in peak form — she all fluster, he all bluster. The capper is the lineup of toupees on his desk, forming a silent audience for their concurrent meltdowns. (Watch it on Netflix.)

Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)

Moore followed up The Dick Van Dyke Show by trying to become a musical comedy star. Her first attempt — a legendary flop stage musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s — didn’t do the trick, so she took the main supporting role in this Julie Andrews vehicle as a chance to show off her singing and dancing skills.

Millie is a bit of a chore if you’re even the slightest bit allergic to cheerfulness, and to say its racial politics are dated is a huge understatement. (One of the production’s main plot points involves a ring of Chinese men selling white women into slavery, so … yeah.) But it’s a great example of just how badly Moore wanted to transition to song-and-dance entertainment, precisely at a time when Hollywood was moving past the mega-musicals (like Andrews’s previous hit, The Sound of Music) that had defined the late ’50s and early ’60s.

She would try for musical comedy stardom again after The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended, this time as the center of a musical variety series. (Watch this clip to see her sing and dance with a young Michael Keaton and David Letterman!) But that, too, flopped, and Moore’s few remaining forays onto the Broadway stage were mostly in straight plays. (Available on DVD.)

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “The Birds … and … um … Bess” (1971)

In the middle of a string of box office flops (including a film in which she played a nun opposite Elvis!), Moore agreed to costar in a TV special with Van Dyke. Entitled Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman, the special was a smash for CBS, which quickly realized just how much Moore lit up the screen. (Watch some of it for yourself here.) The network signed her to do a new series, but she negotiated to retain key creative freedoms — creative freedoms that led to one of the best TV comedies ever made in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

One of the chief struggles of the show’s early seasons is just how to make Moore’s character, Mary Richards, funny. She’s too good of a person and too smart to naturally come off as anything but winning and lovable. The winning strategy, as the show’s writers soon realized, was to put Moore in situations where Mary’s innate goodness and her innate politeness would come into conflict.

Take, for instance, the season two premiere, in which Mary’s neighbor and landlady Phyllis Lindstrom (the amazing Cloris Leachman) insists that Mary teach Phyllis’s daughter, Bess, about sex, after Mary produces a TV documentary called What’s Your Sexual IQ? The scene that concludes the episode — in which Bess reveals that she already knows all about sex from the playground — allows Moore to play every single facet of her character, from stammering nervousness to open compassion, in the space of about three minutes. (Stream it on Hulu.)

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “The Shame of the Cities” (1975)

Here’s something Moore is rarely praised for: She’s one of the best actors in TV history at playing drunk.

Yes, her breakdown at the end of “Chuckles Bites the Dust” (the most famous Mary Tyler Moore Show episode, which my colleague Alex Abad-Santos wrote about here) is probably her most hilarious, most purely skillful moment in the show’s history. But for my money, the set piece that concludes the episode above is very nearly as good. (If you play the embedded video, it should be cued up to start with the scene I’m talking about, or you can skip to 20:35. The frequent braying laugh you hear in the audience is show creator and Academy Award winning director James L. Brooks.)

Watch how Moore tries to carry her character as if she’s not drunk, how she very carefully pronounces every word she says and chooses especially florid language. Moore understands that many drunk people don’t immediately collapse into being slobs. Indeed, most of us try to keep it together, try to act like we know exactly what we’re doing, and no, we’re not drunk in the slightest, why do you ask? Few TV actors have showed more skill than Moore in executing complicated comedic set pieces like this one; she finds every single laugh in even the most mundane bits of dialogue.

Ordinary People (1980)

Moore’s attempts in the 1980s to escape her typecasting as a bright, cheery sunbeam were probably spurred by the success she found when director Robert Redford cast her as an emotionally frigid mother in his eventual Best Picture winner.

Moore is best known for her comedic work, but what really stands out in this role is the way she expertly deconstructs an incredibly tragic character over the course of the film and finds ways to subvert her warm and friendly image. It’s the kind of part that has the most impact when played by someone we already know very well for a very different performance, and Moore sinks her teeth into it with everything she’s got.

She was justifiably nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Ordinary People, but never landed another film role with quite as much power as this one. It’s too bad. Ordinary People shows just how gifted Moore could be at showing who someone like Mary Richards might have been if things had gone just a little bit differently for her. She’s still recognizably Mary Tyler Moore — but she’s also so very different. And that’s the very definition of a star. (Rent it on Amazon. Starz subscribers can watch for free on Starz Play.)

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