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Mary Tyler Moore: America's Sweetheart Goes All the Way

By / Published on Thursday, 26 Jan 2017 11:00 AM / No Comments / 143 views

This story originally appeared as the cover story in Issue 330, November 13th, 1980.

It’s eight o’clock and everyone’s here… well, almost everyone. There’s Carl Reiner, and there’s Gavin MacLeod, and there’s Betty White and Allen Ludden. They’re all here, in this awkward white screening room up four flights of stairs and down a winding hallway deep in the bowels of Paramount Studios. It’s a hybrid crowd – TV people and movie people, performers and people from behind the scenes, chorus girls and choreographers, even a few who are just regular people with regular jobs – all of them united the way so many circles are: by a single, common friend. Now all they need is the party girl herself. All they need is Mary.

Where could she be? Mary, who is never late, who is in fact obsessive about details like time. Something must be wrong. They’re all worried about Mary. And how can they help it? No one knows quite what to make of what she’s doing with her life.

It’s one thing for her to walk away from a television series while it’s still a hit. But then to seem to give up on TV altogether when she’s one of the hottest properties around … to separate from her husband of seventeen years and leave her spectacular Bel Air mansion to take up a nomadic, single life in New York … to fly in the face of her own meticulously honed image as the all-American girl by playing a quadriplegic on Broadway and a victim of emotional atrophy in film. What gives? Look, you’d worry too, if your friend were Mary Tyler Moore.

And now she’s late to her own fandango. “I heard she’s bringing Richie.” someone says. Everyone here knows that her son hasn’t lived with her for years, and she hasn’t seen him in months; they all understand the subtext of that remark. “Maybe she got caught in traffic,” a leveler head offers. “Or held up at dinner.” Yes, maybe she did.

But no, here she is, coming through the door, being Mary, you know, lighting up the room with her smile. Her friends applaud and rush to greet her. “Hold on, hold on. You haven’t seen it yet,” she says.

She seems like the same old Mary, but who can be sure? She’s dressed in one of those zip-up jump suits she wears all the time now; she discovered them while ballooning – another of those “new experiences” she’s told them all about “So, Ms. New York,” one friend exclaims, grabbing her by both arms. “You don’t look so pale to me.” Mary keeps her smile plugged in. “This?” She points to her tan. “I got it all today. Two hours.” Richie stands behind her, a handsome, broad-shouldered California kid, smiling and looking his twenty-three years in a Hawaiian shirt and white painter’s pants.

“You know, those are very chic,” says Mary of a dancing pal’s ugly, padded astronaut shoes, de rigueur after bunion surgery. “Everyone in New York is wearing them.”

“Mary, only you’d say that.”

“All right!” she commands, turning abruptly and striding toward the back of the room. “Let’s start this mother!”

Say what?

The switch is flicked and the room goes black. Pushing herself deep into an overstuffed leather chair, Mary touches the button that starts the film. The credits begin and her friends applaud when her name appears, then they fall silent. Ordinary People, read the big white letters against the black screen. She glances quickly at Richie on her right, who meets her halfway. Then she fixes her stare straight ahead, crosses her legs and bites her nails.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of Mary Tyler Moore and her characters on our culture and on the way we see ourselves. As Laura Petrie, the naive and slightly flaky heroine of The Dick Van Dyke Show, she brought wit and intelligence to a medium in which the portrayal of women had not yet evolved beyond Lucille Ball-Donna Reed clowns. While Laura did not hold a job outside her home, at least she wasn’t chained to the sink; her lack of pretension and her healthy self-respect put forth an idea, new at the time, that women were good for more than making babies and casseroles.

In 1970, The Mary Tyler Moore Show took it all one step further. Here was Mary Richards, WJM-TV’s news producer – a competent, ambitious, hardworking woman who was perfectly content to inch toward 40 without a man. Here was television’s first truly liberated female. Where The Dick Van Dyke Show made working life an integral part of the story, MTM placed Mary’s career at the center of her life, focusing most of the action right in the newsroom. Yet it did not deny its characters their personal lives: Lou separated from his wife; Mary’s landlady, Phyllis, discovered that her brother was gay and then that her husband was having an affair with Sue Ann Nivens, the station’s bitchy “Happy Homemaker.” Mary herself toughened up, changing from a nervous milquetoast in the first show to someone capable of telling off the man who fired her by the last.

During those seven years, Mary Richards wrestled with many of the conflicts that confronted single working women in the Seventies. She did not win all her battles (among her losses, the fight for equal pay), but she handled them with reason and professionalism and humor, which is to say, she set an example while never seeming less than real. On another level, she worked a subtle subversion. Mary could deal with unwanted proposals as effectively as propositions; but just as she could say no, she could also say yes. Her life included friends and dates, and relationships and sex. She ratified a pattern of liberal social behavior simply by pursuing it, by being responsible for her own actions and by never causing herself or another person any harm. When Mary Richards spent the night with a man or intimated she was on the pill, even Aunt Edna in Topeka could buy it.

The well-scrubbed, all-American girl whom everyone likes, that’s the ticket. Miss Popularity. Voted Most Likely to Succeed. She’s our girl.

“It’s comfortable for people to think that there is someone like her in America,” says Allen Burns, one of the show’s creators. Even so, the characters on MTM would be bores in real life: Lou would be a bully, Murray an asshole, Mary a prig. But it was TV after all, and that made the difference. By the time the series ended, Mary Richards could have done just about anything she wanted – entered politics, gotten married and then divorced, adopted a child on her own, had one – and it would have been okay. She could have gone on forever. But that’s where Mary differs from Mary. Mary Tyler Moore’s supreme gift, everyone will tell you, is timing. She knows how long to hold onto things and when to let them go. She quit while she was ahead.

When MTM aired its last new episode in February 1977, Esquire magazine presented a Valentine’s tribute to the woman they called, quite accurately, “America’s sweetheart.” It was so nice. Dick Van Dyke wrote, “She’s the best comedienne in the U.S. today. She’s so darn good that nonpros don’t notice it, but those of us in the business love to watch her.” Nora Ephron confessed, “It meant a lot to me the second time I was single and home alone on Saturday nights to discover that Mary Tyler Moore was at home, too.” Gloria Steinem said, “She’s shit-free.” But of all the little snippets the magazine published, two seemed most intriguing.

Jeane Dixon: “So far, we have seen only the budding of her career. Mary will mount to even more scintillating heights and will become one of the first ladies of the American theater.”

Robert Redford: “Once while renting a house in Malibu, California, I saw her bundled up, walking alone on the beach. I wanted to introduce myself and walk along with her, but my respect for other people’s privacy prevented it. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is the only network show I consistently watch, aside from Sesame Street. She seems at once positive, vivacious, vulnerable, attractive, independent, adventurous and feminine. I would still like to walk with her on the beach.”

Ordinary People is not the greatest movie ever made, but it’s pretty damn good, made all the better by the pleasant surprise that Robert Redford has a director’s talent and by its four strong lead performances. For Mary Tyler Moore, it’s her first unsympathetic and, not incidentally, her finest role.

Beth and Calvin Jarrett and their son, Conrad, are residents of Lake Forest, a wealthy Chicago suburb where, according to Judith Guest’s novel, “Good taste is absorbed through the skin, like rays from the sun. “It is the kind of town where function follows form, and indeed, over the years, form itself has become the function. In the film and in reality the town’s concern for appearances is something of a metaphor for its residents.

The film intercepts the Jarretts after their eldest son, the apple of everyone’s eye, dies in a sailing accident. Conrad has just returned from a psychiatric hospital, where he was sent following a suicide attempt. Their lives appear to be improving, but the Jarretts have not yet completed their family tragedy. Calvin is a successful attorney who takes expressions of love for granted; Beth is an expensively maintained and relentlessly cheerful homemaker who prefers that her emotional life be as spotless and ordered as her silver; and Conrad is a dangerously confused adolescent. The pieces aren’t coming back together as neatly as they’d like. In fact, it’s all falling apart.

“At first, my desire to cast Mary was purely instinctive,” says Redford. “She was the first person who came to mind, visually, when I read the book in galleys. I don’t know why. The character is so hard to realize, it’s such an uphill battle; in order for the character to have some redemption at the end, you have to at least feel something for her. I knew we needed someone you could “like” in the part, because Beth is likable on the surface. She is, you know, the all-American girl.

“As to the question of whether Mary could act the part, that was up in the air. I just banked on it.”

In the beginning, Redford says, Mary had problems toning down her movements and reactions from television broadness to large-screen nuance, and then dealing with the improvisational atmosphere that he and the rest of the cast preferred. But she learned. “I really had no idea she was as talented as she is,” he claims. “There’s a bravery in Mary that’s extraordinary. Sometimes I couldn’t figure out whether she didn’t know any better or had incredible courage. But she always did it.”

When Mary tells the story of how she got the part, though, hers is hardly the voice of confidence: “I got hold of a script that had been kidnapped – no one was supposed to have one – and I read it and said to my agent, ‘Yes, very definitely, I want to meet this man.’

“Bob set up a meeting in his office, and we had lunch and just discussed Beth: what did I think, what did I feel. He told me what he was going to do with the overall picture. It was a really nice meeting, and I went away and didn’t hear from him again for two months. During that time. I heard through the grapevine that he was testing every actress in town. He called me up once and said, ‘I hope you haven’t lost interest, because I certainly haven’t. I just have some juggling to do in terms of casting. I have in mind certain couplings, but I don’t have in mind yet which way I will go.’ ‘OK, fine,’I said, ‘I can understand it, I can understand it.’ And meantime, I’m getting tenser and tenser.

“About two weeks later he called and told my agent,’I would like Mary to come over and meet Donald Sutherland.’ I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be the toughest thing in my life, because I know that he is going to be looking at me with a magnifying glass to see whether or not I look right with Donald.’ I couldn’t stand it, because I had no sense of control; everything was out of my hands. I went to that meeting and everyone sat around chatting about everything from baseball to books and a little about the movie, and then the hairdresser and the wardrobe man came in and we were discussing what kinds of clothes I should wear, and yet when I left the office, he had never said, ‘I want you to do the film.’ It was really odd. I went to my manager’s office, and when I walked in, he had just put down the phone from negotiating the deal with Paramount.

“It was nerve-racking, but the exhilaration, when I found out I got it – I didn’t think I would experience it again in my life, that feeling that seems to be unique to 20-year-olds. I identify it with when I used to go and interview for a part and come away four feet off the ground when I got it. It had been so long since I felt that sort of triumph.”

Age has played some middling cruel tricks on Mary Tyler Moore. A career of ear-to-ear smiles has creased her face; years of a too-luscious tan have left her skin a little tired looking; and her perpetual dance classes and dieting (she is diabetic) have made her impossibly thin. It’s too bad; but on the other hand, it’s a very monied, Lake Forest look, and all things considered, better the body should err in favor of class. Yet the exuberance of youth is still with her – or perhaps it’s just arrived. Mary Tyler Moore is as likable in person as she is onscreen, a bundle of admirable qualities and, yes, a few flaws. She’s gifted with a forthrightness that is disconcerting. Asked to describe Beth Jarrett, she says, “Beth’s a product of her upbringing, which is a very self-disciplined way of dealing with life. She’s very orderly, very ordered; she believes very strongly in the strength of the family and in being the matriarch of that family, and that if problems arise, you deal with them with dispatch. There’s a great deal about that to admire. That’s what I hung onto in playing Beth. I like Beth.” Could they be friends? “I know she could be my friend, but there could never be the depth of friendship that I now look for in people.”

Mary now dates her life in months. She sees herself evolving right before her eyes, and she likes what she sees. “I have become a lot more open in the past few months. I am developing a group of friends. They are not even a group. They are individual people I spend time with, and when I am feeling sad or blue or stupid, I share that with them. I feel very good about that.

“Throughout most of my life I’ve had very few friends. Probably none with whom I would share those dark, ugly moments. I never really allowed anybody to get to know me. There was something in me that said, ‘If you share your darkest moments, your saddest moments with people, you’re burdening them.’ I now know that that gives them an open door to do the same with you, and so it’s a gift, to be open enough to say, ‘I really feel rotten and here’s why.’

“Living on my own is also something I had never done before. I married the first time right out of high school. My first husband, Richie’s father, and I were separated for two months when I met Grant Tinker, and Grant and I were married three months after that, and during that time, I lived next door to my aunt and grandmother. So up until seven, eight months ago, when Grant and I separated, I’d never really been on my own.

“I think had we not separated, I would not be opening myself up to so many new experiences. I’ve been seeing a shrink, too. I don’t think I would want to go through so many dramatic changes in my life without somebody who knows what he’s talking about, at least listening to me and giving me the feeling that what I’m doing is all right.

“I am doing at age 42 what most people do at age twenty-two, and that is broadening their horizons and just being curious – having a little fun with life as opposed to simply concentrating on work. This much I know.”

Mary Tyler Moore can remember concentrating on a career, specifically a career in show business, since she was barely three. An uncle who was a successful agent for MCA would visit her family in Brooklyn and regale them with fabulous stories of Hollywood; it was enough to make a young girl’s head spin, and apparently the heads of adults as well. When Mary was nine, her family packed up and moved to California, where her father took a not-so-glamorous job with the Southern California Gas Company and Mary took her first lessons in dance.

Mary grew up in a rigid Roman Catholic environment and attended parochial schools. She was well behaved but an exceedingly poor student. At home, her father was a strict disciplinarian and never very affectionate. With her parents’ consent, Mary moved out twice and lived for years at a stretch with her nearby aunt and grandmother, both of whom encouraged her showbiz aspirations. “My problems with my parents were basically communications problems,” she recalls, adding that their estrangement has tempered with time. “There are things I could say, for print, that would explain everything, but in my mind and in my heart those would be indictments of my parents I don’t want to make. I believe they did the best they could at the time in raising me. I didn’t see it, and I wanted to live elsewhere. Sure, I think I was being a rotten kid, but there were parts of what they did in raising me that were a little rotten, too.”

At 17, she married Richard Meeker, a 27-year-old public-relations executive, and that solved her address problem for the time being. “I had a very strong desire to lead my own life – very much so. And as a matter of fact, it was when I married that I broke formally with the Catholic church. I think, next to Judaism, Catholicism is the biggest provider of guilt. I was determined to use birth control, and that, of course, was a mortal sin. Interestingly enough. I was pregnant two months after we were married. So much for my desire to stand on my own two feet.” At about the same time, she landed her first professional job, playing Happy Hotpoint the pixie pitchman in a series of national television commercials for an appliance manufacturer. It was quite a coup for a teenager to earn $ 10,000 a year, a princely sum in 1955. But when they could no longer hide her pregnancy, they let her go in favor of a more androgynous dancer. After having Richie, she worked in choruses on shows for Eddie Fisher, Jimmy Durante, George Gobel, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. For thirteen weeks she played the sultry-voiced secretary to private-eye Richard Diamond (David Janssen) and was unseen but for her hands and legs; when she asked for a few dollars above scale, she was out of work again.

Shifting from dancing to acting, she secured an up-and-coming agent, made up a resume of unprovable credits – theater engagements in Chicago and the like – and did guest spots on the more popular shows of the time: Hawaiian Eye, 77 Sunset Strip, The Deputy. Finally she auditioned for the part of Danny Thomas’ daughter on Make Room for Daddy. She was rejected (“With a nose like yours, my darling, you don’t look like you could belong to me”), but Thomas remembered her the next year when he and partner Carl Reiner were casting The Dick Van Dyke Show.

“If you watch the early Van Dyke shows, her development is apparent almost from week to week,” Reiner says.” She knows where the jokes are. She knows how to quip, but she’s no jokester. She’s a fine comic actress. She has a very fine instrument, as many, dancers do, and she knows how to use it. She’s very believable, you know, very vulnerable, and that vulnerability makes her seem not stagy but real.”

As her career took off, her marriage crumbled. One day on the Van Dyke set, she was introduced to Grant Tinker, head of television for the New York ad agency Benton and Bowles. Tinker was rearranging his own life about then. He left Benton and Bowles for NBC; Stamford, Connecticut, for New York City; and his wife of eleven years and four kids for man-about-town. Mary visited him in New York; he took her to see Mary, Mary on Broadway; later she took him to Chubby Checker’s Peppermint Lounge, and they twisted the night away.

They were married, and Tinker was transferred to Burbank. For five years, all was bliss. Then Van Dyke quit his show to concentrate on movies. Mary made two forgettable films: Thoroughly Modern Millie, with Julie Andrews, and Change of Habit, with Elvis Presley. She tried Broadway with a musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s that never opened; producer David Merrick called it his “Bay of Pigs.” She had a miscarriage and discovered she was severely diabetic (two insulin shots a day). Generally, things weren’t much fun. But in 1969, CBS reunited Dick Van Dyke and Mary for a special that drew such a strong response that all three networks offered her a series. At Tinker’s urging, she went with the CBS offer, which was a multimillion-dollar deal that allowed them to set up their own company – MTM Enterprises – and retain partial ownership of this and subsequent productions as well as creative control.

By her own admission, Mary has next to nothing to do with MTM Enterprises, though she does hold the title of chairman and draws salary and stock. “In much the same way as you name a boat after your wife, he named the company after me, but that’s the end of my involvement.” Tinker was always the dominant figure in the marriage. “It’s chauvinistic for men to think they are the more important member of a family,” Mary once said. “But that’s the kind of marriage we have. It’s been that way from the beginning.” The Tinkers were a self-contained, defiantly independent couple, never seen much in show-business hangouts and socializing only with close friends. Their desire for privacy even spilled into The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which cast members say never developed the kind of off-camera family feeling that is typical of such long-term endeavors; everything was kept at a disciplined, professional level.

In 1973, their marriage took a nasty turn, and they separated. Six weeks later, they got back together. Mary, who described the separation as “a waste and a shame,” was quoted again and again saying she would be lost without Grant.

Now she says things like, “When two people live together, there have to be compromises, simply because there are two entities that have different thoughts, different goals, different ideas, whether they are on an hourly basis or on a lifetime basis. It’s almost mathematical. You look at balances, the checks and balances. ‘How many compromises have I made in order to achieve this happiness that he now enjoys, and is this giving me back something in return for my investment?’ It is an experience that is only going to last for a certain amount of time without having to make so many compromises that it begins to be painful rather than beneficial.

“You can’t ever be glad that a marriage ends. And, oh, yes, it has ended. It was a good decision. However, there is pain attached. There is no question about that.”

Likewise, Mary seems to be accepting her strained but improving relationship with her son. Richie lived with her till he was seventeen, when he moved in with his father. “I think that, as a mother, there was a part of me that was very much like Beth in Ordinary People, to the detriment of my relationship with my son. Our relationship never really developed to the point where we could have fun together-not as often as we should have. We are finally beginning to look at each other as human beings and finding out that we do occasionally read the same books, metaphorically speaking. As I look back on it, I demanded a great deal of him, and I wanted near perfection from him early on, far earlier than he was capable of establishing his own ideas of what perfection is. Then you think, ‘God, even if you decide what it is for yourself, don’t shoot for perfection-there is no such thing.'”

So many changes. This Afternoon, Mary Tyler Moore, lifelong Republican, is in the apartment of Howard Samuels, a prominent New York Democrat, filming a political commercial for President Carter. It is one of those detestable, sticky New York summer afternoons, and the sofa on which Mary is sitting is right in the sun. She’s wearing a black woolen dress with a gray-and-magenta slash across the front. The spot won’t air until the last days of the campaign, and by then a more comfortable cotton outfit would hardly be appropriate. So a hairdresser and makeup artist are trying in vain to keep her from sweating herself into a puddle. Fortunately, she knows a thing or two about performing for television cameras, getting it done fast and getting it done right.

“Usually I don’t do celebrity spots,” Gerald Rafshoon, Carter’s media man, explains a few minutes before shooting. “But I really can’t think of anyone I’d rather have than Mary. She got in touch with us and volunteered just after the Republican National Convention, after she saw what all went on in Detroit. How could we refuse? There are very few people who don’t bring any negatives with them. In fact, she’s about it.”

The prospect of the all-American girl speaking out for a political candidate boggles the mind. But the question remains: if she’s interested in politics, why did she wait to speak up till now? “I don’t know the answer to that. And it’s something I’m not proud of. However, I’m not going to let it stop me from starting now. If I’m taking my first tentative steps forward politically, just as some of my friends are backing off, like Shirley MacLaine and Donald Sutherland, that’s all right. At least I’m doing it.

“You know, I think part of what caused me not to become involved in any of the huge issues, whether domestic or international, has been a fear that it would be so onerous, that the knowledge of what was going on would be so intimidating, that I would feel a frustration that I couldn’t live with. I’ve come to a point in my life, I guess, where I say, ‘That’s all right, you don’t have to save the world, just tiny contributions will do, but don’t back away from it just because you think you have to give more than you are capable of giving.’ Before, I just wasn’t aware of anything other than myself, I guess.”

Mary worries a lot about her clean-cut image – not so much how to keep it, but how to put it away. “I hope that as time goes by, and with each succeeding venture. I will dispel that image, to a degree anyway. It’s hard to beat four episodes a day of the same character, and that’s what I’m up against. It’s wonderful corporately, but as an actress, it’s a real killer. Still, I think it can be done.”

Aside from the pure challenge of the roles, a principal reason why she appeared in Whose Life Is It Anyway,” as the paralyzed sculptor who would rather die than live as a vegetable, and then as Beth Jarrett, was to try to break the Mary Richards mold.

“Someone told me the other day that there is a new pill going around in the social drug scene and they don’t have a name for it yet, but the most evident result is that you tend to smile a lot, and so they’re calling it the MTM.”

She professes not to have any inkling as to what project she will do next. She has hired a full-time reader to help her find properties to develop. “I’d love to go back and forth between comedy and drama, and between media. I don’t want a lot, do I? That’s a simple request.” But for the moment, at least, she seems genuinely happy just to live her life and to let herself be distracted by museums and the ballet and newfound friends.

“You know what I’m working on? I’m working on learning to, in an overused phrase, live with myself. Learning to like myself. To know that it’s all right to be alone, to do nothing if I feel like it, to allow myself just to sit and stare into space if that’s what I choose to do. I’m someone who has spent so much of my life always with somebody that it was quite something to get used to, especially when the play ended and I had no work to balance my life. I felt – if not feeling on a gut level, lonely – I was objectively, intellectually, looking at myself as being lonely, alone, thinking there’s something wrong here. It took me a couple of months to get used to it. I’m still not totally adjusted to it. A couple of months to know that that’s all right, to know I can go out and be with my friends, to have dinner with someone I like a lot many times a week, but to know it’s also all right to go down to the deli and get a barbecued chicken and bring it back and sit and do nothing.

“There’s been a lot of hard thinking and soul-searching and a certain amount of separation pain and readjustment, fear and loneliness. I wouldn’t necessarily call my experience pleasant, but it has been positive.

“It’s interesting to think back to those situations in the series; those Mary Richards-alone-in-the-world, how-will-you-make-it-on-your-own situations are really my life now. It’s funny. The other day I was sitting outside my psychiatrist’s office smoking a cigarette, and they played that elevator Muzak. I was feeling a little depressed that day, and don’t you know it, over the Muzak they started to play the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. ‘How will you make it on your own, girl?’ How will you make it on your own, girl? I laughed. I wanted to stop people who were walking by, I wanted to stop them and say, ‘Do you realize what is happening? Do you realize what is happening?'”

Without knowing it, Mary has underscored every one of her major scenes in Ordinary People by lighting another cigarette. As the movie approaches its teary conclusion, she shifts her focus for a second off the screen and down on her friends. They have been silent throughout.

Oh, God, what are they thinking?

Then it is over. “Oh Mary.” “Great movie!” “Just devastating.” She knows they are concerned about her, but now they seem excited, too. They mill around the back of the screening room and stand by Mary, who is smiling, boy is she smiling, wider than ever, if you can imagine that. “It means so much to be here with my friends,” she says, and they know she means it. Finally, they all walk down the hallway and the four flights of stairs and out into the cool, dark air and the parking lot at Paramount.

“Good night, Mary.”

“Good night.”

And Mary and Richie climb inside a little white BMW and drive off into a California night.

**As this issue was going to press, Richie died at his home of an apparently accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Mary Tyler Moore, trailblazing actress, dead at 80.

Thanks to: Rolling Stone Latest Movies News

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