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Mary Tyler Moore: she really did make it after all

Mary Tyler Moore, who pioneered leading roles for women on TV, died today

Mary Tyler Moore: she really did make it after all

Mary Tyler Moore died today, but her ghost is all over television. It is nearly impossible to overstate her influence

Mary Tyler Moore: she really did make it after all

Mary Tyler Moore, best known for her television roles in the 1960s sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s, has died, aged 80.

She won a Golden Globe and was nominated for a best actress Oscar in 1980 for the film Ordinary People.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Moore moved to Los Angeles when she was eight and started in show business as a dancer aged 17.

Her parts grew in size until she landed the role of wife Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1961. In 2012 Van Dyke said working with the “beautiful, bright and talented” Moore was “an effortless piece of cake.”

Later, she starred as Mary Richards in her self-titled sitcom. Running for seven seasons from 1970-77, it was named by Time magazine as one of 17 shows that changed television.

Moore emerged when women in leading roles were traditional housewives. But with her modern trousers and Jackie Kennedy-style hair, playing a single woman, chasing a career, she challenged that stereotype in front of millions of viewers.

Moore and then-husband Grant Tinker created the show and a number of spin-offs, as well as other hit programmes – Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere and Remington Steele.

Moore swapped comedy for drama in Ordinary People, playing an affluent, bitter mother who loses her son in an accident. Robert Redford, who directed the film, said today her “energy, spirit and talent created a new bright spot in the television landscape”.

Moore, who was married three times, endured great personal tragedy. She grew up with an alcoholic mother and suffered from alcohol problems herself. Both women were treated at the Betty Ford Centre.

Her younger sister died of a drug overdose aged 21 and she lost her brother to cancer at 47. In her book After All, Moore described how she tried to help her terminally-ill brother commit suicide with drug-laced ice cream, but the attempt failed.

Her only child, Richie, born during her first marriage to Richard Meeker, also struggled with drug abuse and accidentally shot himself dead aged 24.

Moore was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in the 1970s and became the international chair of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, testifying before US Congress to promote stem-cell research. She also campaigned for animal rights.

Slate TV critic Willa Paskin noted: “Mary Tyler Moore died today, but her ghost is all over television. Moore was already famous when she became iconic as The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Mary Richards, a single working woman whose influence is nearly impossible to overstate.”

Mary Richards was an enormously likeable everywoman who starred in a sitcom about a group of irascible colleagues who were going to make it after all.

When the series, created by Allan Burns and James L Brooks, was originally pitched to CBS, with Richards as a divorcee, one executive said: “American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a series lead any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with moustaches, and people who live in New York.”

When the first episode aired in 1970, Mary Richards arrived in Minneapolis, recovering not from a divorce but a broken engagement. She applies for a receptionist job at WJM-TV, but is hired as an assistant producer by the grouchy, good-hearted Lou Grant (Ed Asner), despite the fact that that Mary’s “got spunk. I hate spunk.”

Richards did have spunk, perhaps only matched by Moore’s own. Moore made hard things look easy: she was an ace fake-laugher, she did pratfalls with grace.

She is a resounding rejoinder to the current idea that likeability is somehow uninteresting. Without Mary there is no Rachel Green, another irrepressibly loveable sitcom heroine, or Liz Lemon, another working woman managing the madness of a TV show, or Carrie Bradshaw, another woman exploring singledom without letting it swamp her.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s influence is just as great as the influence of Moore herself — and Moore was not just its star, she was also one of its producers.

The series was a workplace comedy, with Mary and Lou working alongside buffoonish anchor Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), the sardonic Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod) and eventually the lascivious Sue Ann Novens (Betty White) at a failing news station.

You can draw a direct line to shows like Sportsnight, Newsradio, and 30 Rock. MTM’s wonderful finale ends with a long, sniffling, snotty group hug, shuffling toward a box of Kleenex.

“Thank you for being my family,” Mary tearfully tells her colleagues, establishing the blueprint for shows about strangers, be they the co-workers of the American The Office or the regulars at Cheers, who become as enmeshed as relatives.

Before Valerie Harper left for her own show, Mary’s close friendship with her brash neighbour Rhoda made MTM one of the original female friendship comedies, featuring a relationship that dealt with careers and dating and influenced everything including Sex and the City.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show stopped airing nearly 40 years ago, but it is still in conversation with so many contemporary issues, about feminism, women in the workplace, friendship, relationships.

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