Moore was a prolific performer. She began her career on the Broadway stage, before being plucked to star in The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1961. She became a TV mainstay in the ’60s and ’70s, a seven-time Emmy winner and sitcom staple. Later, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her turn as a grieving mother in 1980’s Ordinary People.
But Moore was much more than her most famous roles, which usually highlighted her characters’ sunny dispositions and can-do optimism (a typecasting Moore attempted to escape in the second half of her career).
She was also a savvy businesswoman, starting MTM Enterprises in 1969 with then-husband Grant Tinker. The company was founded to produce her self-titled show, but went on to revolutionize the way TV was made and still stands as one of the most important creative forces in the history of American television.
In short, TV wouldn’t be what it is without Moore’s influence both in front of and behind the camera.
On camera, Mary Tyler Moore was an always smiling dynamo
Moore first pinged on America’s radar in a big way on The Dick Van Dyke Show, where she played Van Dyke’s wife, Laura Petrie, from 1960 through 1966.
The Dick Van Dyke Show’s strange dual structure — half set at Rob Petrie’s workplace, half at home — wouldn’t have worked without a strong personality to bounce off of at home, and Moore could more than hold her own against her slapstick legend of a co-star. Though she was perhaps a touch young to play Van Dyke’s rough contemporary, Laura’s independence and wit shone through in every scene, and her fashion sense (those capri pants!) ended up inspiring trends as well.
Moore had played several small parts in TV shows before Dick Van Dyke, but the series propelled her toward what looked like major stardom in the movies. Shortly after Dick Van Dyke ended after five seasons, she starred in the hit Thoroughly Modern Millie. But TV still beckoned.
And indeed, it was starring as Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show from 1970 to 1977 that made Moore an institution of her own.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s title character was a single woman who became a producer on a Minnesotan news show and moved into an apartment building full of fascinating — and even wonderfully strange — women. The series devoted time to both the workplace setting of Mary’s newsroom and Mary’s personal life (similar to Dick Van Dyke, which was an influence), and became a beloved hit, running for 168 episodes. It even inspired a successful spinoff series, Rhoda, that centered on Mary’s eccentric neighbor (played by Valerie Harper). (It also inspired the less successful sitcom spinoff Phyllis and the Emmy-winning drama spinoff Lou Grant.)
Moore being a single woman was a key element of the show. But when Moore, Tinker, and Mary Tyler Moore creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns first brought the idea to CBS, the network was so unsure about the concept that it famously refused to let them write Mary as a divorced woman.
That did not stop the show from depicting Mary’s frustration with dating after ending a long-term relationship, while also balancing a blossoming career as a journalist in an industry that rarely took women seriously. She was, in other words, a rare character to see on television — and she soon found an audience that appreciated the show’s refreshing frankness.
Though Mary Tyler Moore encountered some criticism from feminist organizations while it was on the air (mostly in hopes that it would feature Mary Richards more forthrightly speaking up on feminist issues), it was — and still is — seen as a watershed moment for female characters on television. It was also an important milestone in women being hired to write for television, most notably Treva Silverman, who won an Emmy for her work on the program.
When asked in 2002 why The Mary Tyler Moore Show was so successful, Moore emphasized the show’s connection with the audience, saying that at the end of the day, Mary was the audience. “I was the voice of sanity around whom all these crazies did their dance, and I reacted in the same way that a member of the audience would have reacted,” she said of the show, later adding, “It was written honestly. There was never any manufactured laugh. There was never compromising of character.”
That might sound easy, but Moore and the show’s refusal to dilute the character of Mary Richards — a single woman whose career was just as important as her home life — was a revolutionary act for television of the era. And that character’s spirit has continued to live on for decades, influencing so many shows that came after Mary Tyler Moore, from Murphy Brown to 30 Rock.
Moore spent much of the rest of her career trying to escape Mary Richards
For the most part, Moore’s post-Mary Tyler Moore work is a series of thwarted comeback attempts. Two variety series meant to show that she could play more than the sunny straight man — Mary and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour — largely bombed, and her assorted TV comeback vehicles in the ’80s and ’90s (which mostly played off her famous work as Mary Richards in various ways) failed as well.
In a way, it’s easy to see why Moore thought she should be able to spread her wings a bit. Her work in 1980’s Best Picture winner Ordinary People earned her an Oscar nomination for playing dramatically against type as a tightly wound, emotionally brittle mother whose seeming inability to love her children helps undergird a family tragedy. Moore was brilliant in the role, and it must have seemed like a natural fit to bring a slightly darker, harder-to-like character to TV, as played by her.
But the TV industry of the time wasn’t quite as attuned to antiheroes and the like as it is now. Her 1985 series, Mary, cast her as a fashion writer forced to take a job at a tabloid, and the combination of Mary against a bunch of journalist scuzzballs never quite worked. Her 1995 series New York News made her the hard-ass editor, but nobody quite bought it.
For better or worse, TV audiences wanted to see Mary as a sunbeam, dealing with flawed but largely likable people. She could take slightly more challenging film roles, but on TV she would always be haunted by Mary Richards.
Perhaps that’s why so many of her later roles explicitly called back to Dick Van Dyke or Mary Tyler Moore: the 2000 spinoff movie Mary and Rhoda. A Dick Van Dyke reunion special. An appearance on Hot in Cleveland, with former co-star Betty White. Unable to escape her greatest role, Moore eventually embraced it, to diminishing returns.
But Moore’s influence extended behind the camera too
When Moore and Tinker began MTM Enterprises in 1969, they couldn’t have known that the studio would become part of an American television renaissance.
Moore had resisted doing more television. She had longed to return to the stage and had tried her hand at the movies as well. But she never saw the same success in those media that she had on the small screen. When she appeared in a variety special built around her in the late ’60s, it posted huge numbers for CBS. In order to get the star back on the network, CBS’s brass gave both her and Tinker immense creative latitude. They used it to build MTM.
MTM’s “well-made sitcoms” blended a light dash of social issue storytelling — Moore’s Mary Richards was a single career woman and had no compunctions about being so — with workplace settings and strong ensemble casts of talented goofballs (Mary Tyler Moore alone gave big breaks to Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, and numerous others). Most were set in Midwestern cities that weren’t typically depicted on TV (Minneapolis for Mary Tyler Moore, but Chicago for The Bob Newhart Show and Cincinnati for WKRP).
Above all, they embraced a certain pathos, the idea that these workplaces could serve as places for makeshift families to come together. The characters of Mary Tyler Moore rarely admit it, but they’re all desperately lonely. It’s only working in the WJM newsroom that gives them a sense of purpose and community.
That creative freedom meant MTM was able to recruit many of the best writers in the business to its door, beginning with Mary Tyler Moore creators Brooks and Burns. Moore and Tinker practiced a hands-off approach that would go on to become de rigueur for other outfits hoping to create great television. They (Tinker especially) ran interference with the network, and let the writers work. And those writers went on to create some of the greatest shows of all time, both at MTM and elsewhere.
Most famously, every episode of an MTM series ended with the company’s production logo — a kitten meowing, a knowing wink toward the lion that roared before MGM movies. The kitten was meant to symbolize the company’s humble origins, but thanks to the woman who gave it its name, it was always far bigger than what it believed was its tiny footprint. Without Mary Tyler Moore, the TV you watch would be very, very different, and probably worse.
The first three seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show are available to stream on Hulu.