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R.I.P. Mary Tyler Moore

Moore in 1978. (Photo: Harry Langdon / Getty Images)
Moore in 1978. (Photo: Harry Langdon / Getty Images)

Mary Tyler Moore, the actress and comedienne who became an American icon on The Dick Van Dyke Show and on her own, self-titled sitcom, has died. The news was confirmed by NBC, which quotes a representative of Moore’s as saying, “Mary will be remembered as a fearless visionary who turned the world on with her smile.” No cause of death was given. She was 80.

For a performer who’d eventually headline multiple namesake series, Moore’s TV career began inauspiciously: Hoofing between acts of The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet as the appliance mascot Happy Hotpoint, then providing the uncredited, breathy voice of Sam, answering-service receptionist to Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Sam was a figure of noirish mystique, depicted in silhouette, or only as a pair of legs—Moore would be a more prominent feature in her next series-regular role, on The Dick Van Dyke Show. As Laura and Rob Petrie, Moore and Van Dyke cut a sophisticated pattern for domestic sitcom partnerships, one whose squabbles never masked the impression that husband and wife were still deeply, madly in love with one another.

Though her name wasn’t in the title, Moore became every bit the comic attraction Van Dyke was, capable of playing to the studio audience while still keeping her depiction of Laura believably human. Recalling Moore’s Dick Van Dyke audition in the book Classic Sitcoms, creator Carl Reiner recalls “I had her read three lines, and ‘Hello, Rob,’ was one of them. That was all it took. I grabbed her by the top of her head and dragged her over to [producer Sheldon Leonard]. ‘This is her!’ I told him. She said hello like a real person!”

It would be Moore who was calling the shots four years after the end of The Dick Van Dyke Show. In the interim, she’d appeared alongside Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie and headlined the Broadway flop Holly Golightly, a musical adaptation of Breakfast At Tiffany’s. On the strengths of an hour-long special that reunited her with Dick Van Dyke, the actor and her then-husband Grant Tinker approached CBS with the idea for a sitcom based around Moore. Written by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, The Mary Tyler Moore Show cast Moore as Mary Richards, who moves to Minneapolis after the end of a long-term relationship and begins a career as a TV news producer at the fictional station WJM. Overcoming middling early reviews, the series aired for seven seasons on the Tiffany Network, garnering 29 Emmy Awards—including three Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series wins for Moore—a record that stood until it was broken by Frasier in 2002.

In addition to its accolades and acclaim, The Mary Tyler Moore Show formed the foundation of a TV empire overseen by Tinker and Moore, which produced not only the Mary Tyler Moore spin-offs Rhoda, Phyllis, and Lou Grant but also The Bob Newhart Show and WKRP In Cincinnati. In line with Lou Grant’s shift from comedy to drama, the production company pivoted toward work in the hour-long space in the 1980s, pioneering the workplace drama via Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. MTM would expand its efforts into film and theater as well, helping to stage the original production of Noises Off in 1983.

After the end of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Moore starred in a pair of short-lived MTM-produced series: Mary in 1978, and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour in 1979. A year later, she’d earn an Oscar nomination for her turn as Beth, a mother grieving the loss of her son and attempting to piece her family back together in Robert Redford’s adaptation of Ordinary People. In addition to her show business efforts, Moore was known for her charity work: Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 33, she served as International Chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and she also advocated on behalf of animal rights.

As the late star’s representative notes, Moore will be remembered for the smile she showed to the world, but hers was also a face of tremendous emotional range—and nowhere is that more clear than in the spotlight scene from The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s “Chuckles Bites The Dust.” After chastising her co-workers for joking about the titular clown’s comedically coincidental death—dressed like a peanut, he’s crushed by an elephant—Mary is overcome by a torrent of feelings at the man’s funeral. Attempting to stifle her own laughter, she’s prompted by the priest presiding over the ceremony to cut loose and send Chuckles into the hereafter with a few belly laughs. But once she stands up, all she can summon are deep, full-body sobs. It’s a pinnacle of the sitcom form, and a fitting tribute to the talent of Mary Tyler Moore.

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