Mary Tyler Moore, who died today at the age of 80, was one of America’s greatest television comedy stars, and it came about almost by accident. When she became a star, as Dick Van Dyke’s wife on The Dick Van Dyke Show, there was really little expectation that she would become a breakout performer: other actors had been hired for their comic talent, and she had more of a straight role. (Her most notable TV part before that was on the show Richard Diamond, Private Detective, where she played a secretary, and only her famous legs were ever seen on camera.) In an early episode, though, her character, Laura Petrie, tried to dye her hair blonde and wound up botching the job. She turned out to get most of the best laughs in that episode, and revealed a particular gift for comic crying, which creator-producer Carl Reiner made sure to write into many subsequent scripts. By the time the show was over, she had won two Emmys, and had offers to star in movies and Broadway plays.
Then, due to bad luck and timing, her post-TV career didn’t work out. Most of the movies she appeared in were not very good, and her big break, the starring role in a musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, turned into one of the most legendary disasters in Broadway history. (Edward Albee was brought in to write a new book for the musical, and then the producer closed it before it officially opened.) So she and her then-husband, TV executive Grant Tinker, plotted her return to TV, accepting an offer from CBS to guarantee 13 episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was not any kind of guaranteed hit. (Among the former movie stars who tried to do their own TV shows around the same time were Debbie Reynolds, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda and Shirley MacLaine; all of them failed.) The taping of the first episode famously didn’t go well, and even after the creators fixed it, the first season had a lot of growing pains, both creatively and in terms of ratings. CBS stuck by it, sensing that this was a show that had the potential to reach young, urban audiences—whatever the 1970 equivalent of “Millennials” was—who didn’t usually watch their sitcoms. And one thing the show had going for it was a sense of timeliness.
On The Dick Van Dyke Show, Moore played a dancer (like herself) who gave up her career to get married and raise a child; this choice was never questioned on the show, and probably most of the people making it thought of it as the obvious choice. When she did her own show, Moore was aware that times had changed and wanted to do a show that would be of the moment, but not so challenging as to alienate people. She and the producers thought about making her a divorcee, but CBS worried that people would think she’d divorced Dick Van Dyke. So she became a 30-year-old single woman who had just broken up with her longtime boyfriend (the pilot hints, as much as it could in a more heavily self-censored period of TV, that she’d been living with him) and moved to take a new job in a new city.
Nobody really meant for this premise to be revolutionary; there were periodic attempts to give Mary a man in her life, but nobody was ever any good. But the result was that it was a series that spent seven years following a single working woman in her thirties, who works hard at her job, gets a raise and a promotion, and does not feel like she’s a failure because she’s not married and has no children. The character also developed as Moore became more comfortable merging her TV persona with her own personality. At the beginning of the series, she was trying to act and look like she did in the ’60s. As time went on, Mary Richards became an ambitious, talented, sometimes overly serious person who was open to the same praise and criticism that Moore sometimes got as a woman producer. The fact that she was comfortable acting her age, and not pretending to be Laura Petrie forever, may have been as inspiring as the premise of the series.
The most famous episode of her show, a season 6 episode called “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” was a great example of how the writers learned to write for her persona and her talents. Like many sitcom episodes of the era, this was written “backwards,” starting with an idea for a funny climactic comedy scene: Mary is at a funeral where the circumstances of the death start to strike her as funny, and she can’t stop herself from laughing. The scene is a showcase for what Moore can do with her face and voice (stifled laughing, sincere but funny crying). But the episode is also about Mary Richards as a person: serious, smart, sometimes forbiddingly perfect, but only because she doesn’t feel comfortable letting her feelings show in public the way her mostly male colleagues do.
After her show went off the air, she made one bad career decision: a variety show that bombed, in spite of a talented young cast that included David Letterman and Michael Keaton. But in 1980 she came back strongly by shifting into drama, getting an Oscar nomination for Ordinary People and a Tony award for Whose Life is it Anyway? (a play where the lead character was successfully changed from a man to a woman so she could play it). The momentum of her career may never have fully recovered after the tragedy of that same year, when her only son, Richard, accidentally shot himself while playing with a loaded shotgun. Her attempts to return to comedy mostly did not work out, particularly a 1985 sitcom on CBS, which was an unhappy experience for both herself and the creators. Like many TV stars, she eventually reached the point where people wouldn’t accept her doing something completely new, but didn’t want her to do the same old things either.
But when she was able to develop her TV persona, and make us follow where it took her, she was one of the best TV sitcom actors of all time, with that special ability that only the best TV stars have: the ability to make us think of her as an intimate friend, even though we don’t actually know her. And she excelled at the odd, stylized art of sitcom acting, of being unrealistic enough to work in such an artificial form, but realistic enough to seem like people we know in real life.
One of her best performances is near the end of a fifth-season episode called “The Shame of the Cities,” where Mary and Lou put together a documentary on a boringly honest politician. Most of the episode hasn’t been about Mary (like many TV stars, she was smart enough not to demand she be the focus of every episode, and to let the rest of the cast be as good as she was), but the closing scene is a long drunk scene where Mary comes to grips with the fact that she’s in a business where only bad news is popular. She plays the whole scene with the solemn dignity of a drunk who thinks she’s obviously not drunk, and that no one could possibly think she was; her delivery of lines that aren’t funny on paper, like “let me just say this to you then…” get big laughs, including the familiar guffaw of the co-creator, James L. Brooks. As she proved in 1980, there’s more to her talent than just being able to get a laugh out of a sitcom audience. But few have ever been as good at it as she was, ever since she discovered that talent in 1961.