On January 25, actress Mary Tyler Moore, whose career spanned five decades and included TV, stage and film, passed away. Moore started her career as a dancing imp in 1950s Hotpoint appliance TV commercials. In movies, she worked with stars ranging from Elvis (“Change of Habit”), to Julie Andrews (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”), to Robert Redford (he directed her Oscar-nominated performance in “Ordinary People”). And, in the 1980s Moore won a special Tony for her stage performance in “Whose Life Is It Anyway?”
However, Moore is best remembered for her contributions to television. Three of Moore’s TV roles reflect changing perceptions of women in America.
In 1959, Moore was cast as Sam in “Richard Diamond, Private Detective.” As Diamond’s secretary, only Sam’s legs and mouth appeared on screen. Trained as a dancer from age 3, Moore’s legs were shapely. Glimpses of just Sam’s legs and mouth let male viewers fantasize about the rest of the character. It was obvious she was Caucasian; but, was Sam a blonde, brunette, or redhead? The choice was left up to each viewer.
Since Moore’s full face was never seen in the show, it was very easy for the producers to replace her with another actress with shapely legs when Moore requested a raise in salary. As long as Sam only represented a pair of sexy legs and mouth, Moore had no fan base to raise an objection when she was replaced.
Luckily, that wasn’t the case in her next major role. Moore was handpicked by entertainer and producer Danny Thomas to play housewife Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” She had previously auditioned for a role on his “The Danny Thomas Show” and he remembered her during casting meetings.
Moore’s dance training meant she could keep up with star Van Dyke, an actor known for physical comedy. The show’s writers made Laura a former dancer which let Moore display her footwork from time to time.
Her character on “Van Dyke” fit perfectly with the times. The series began in 1961, the year of President Kennedy’s inauguration. Moore and Van Dyke’s youthful married couple fit with the “Camelot” White House. Moore’s Laura was content to be a housewife, supporting her husband Rob’s writing career and raising their son, Ritchie.
But, in a nod to women’s growing independence, Laura was not afraid to voice an opinion that differed from Rob’s. And, Moore also pushed the envelope regarding Laura’s costumes. When executives wanted her character to wear dresses to do housework, Moore requested that Laura be allowed to wear capri pants, instead. Male executives at CBS weren’t sure at first but ultimately agreed, although they always worried Moore’s pants might “cup” too much, revealing her dancer’s curvy backside!
“The Dick Van Dyke Show” ended in 1966. By the time Moore reappeared on TV in 1970, groups like the National Organization for Women had helped expand ideas about what women could do and be. As the central character in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Moore’s Mary Richards had a career as a TV news producer and didn’t have to be married. Richards did it all- career, dating, and infamously bad parties- with support from boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner), newswriter Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod), pompous anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), landlady Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman), and best friend Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper).
Once again, Moore’s costumes indicated a new trend in clothing for women. Gone were the capri pants. Now the styles included miniskirts (displaying those dancer legs) and pantsuits.
The show’s theme song, “Love Is All Around,” even morphed between the first and second seasons to indicate the character’s experience as a single woman. Songwriter Sonny Curtis’ original end line for season one was “You might just make it after all,” reflecting Richards’ start in a new city and a new job. But, when the show was renewed for a second season, producer Allan Burns requested a positive change to the wording. The new lyric became “You’re gonna make it after all.” This switch illustrates the character’s onscreen success plus the nation’s growing acceptance of professional women in the workplace.
The fact that Moore’s Richards dated but didn’t define her life by her relationship status also marked a change from the 1960s depiction of single women. “The Dick Van Dyke Show’s” Sally (Rose Marie), an unmarried professional women, had often been written as lovelorn and focused on finding a husband.
When “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” ended, the writers had Richards express her feelings about remaining single. Richards told her co-workers, “Sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman…Last night I thought, ‘What is a family?’ They’re just people who make you feel less alone and really loved. And that’s what you’ve done for me. Thank you for being my family.”
Moore earned Emmys for playing both Laura Petrie (1964 and 1966) and Mary Richards (1973, 1974 and 1976). Her likeness as Richards is memorialized in a Minneapolis statue showing the character tossing her hat in the air, an iconic image derived from the show’s opening credits.
Moore and second husband Grant Tinker (a TV executive) also influenced TV programming by forming MTM Enterprises in 1970. Their first show, and hit, was “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” After that, MTM produced an amazing string of popular shows during the 1970s and 1980s including: “The Bob Newhart Show,” “The White Shadow,” “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Remington Steele,” “St. Elsewhere,” and “Newhart.” The company also created programs showcasing well-known stars of the 1970s including “The Bob Crane Show,” “The Tony Randall Show,” and “The Betty White Show.” Plus, there were “Rhoda,” “Phyllis,” and “Lou Grant,” all spin-offs of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Moore’s passing, just four days after millions of citizens (women and men) took to the streets worldwide in Women’s March rallies, was emotional news for many who were entertained and inspired by the characters she created. Hopefully they can find comfort and encouragement in the second version of lyrics for the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme song: “Love is all around, no need to waste it; You can have the town, why don’t you take it; You’re gonna make it after all!”