Mary Tyler Moore: Idol of capri to acting icon

Screen Actors Guild Awards 2012

When Brooklyn-born Mary Tyler Moore took tap, ballet and modern jazz classes as a young girl, a career in dancing was the goal.

Though her legacy would be in acting, what signifies her greatest roles very much relates to the dancer’s ability to know when to shine with a partner — as one half of the warmly funny Petrie couple on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — and when to bravely go solo, as she did as groundbreakingly independent Mary Richards on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

The Screen Actors Guild’s latest Life Achievement Award honoree remembers what dancing first taught her, though, about the profession she would ultimately go into: “It taught me to be relaxed about myself and forget myself,” reflects Moore. “which is the essence of acting.”

Another lesson? “Do it better next time,” she says, laughing.

Her career is practically a testament to that credo. She started out in commercials in the 1950s, dancing across the screen as an appliance mascot — the Happy Hotpoint girl — but hoping for something more. “You keep trying, and believe that it’s not forever,” she says.

If conquering show business comes in bits and pieces, Moore’s breakthrough role seemed to exemplify that, literally. As the sexy telephone operator on “Richard Diamond, Private Detective,” only her voice, legs, and eyes were featured.

“It certainly caught the audience’s attention,” says Moore.

It wasn’t long before Carl Reiner picked Moore to play housewife Laura Petrie, which she turned into an especially vivacious version of the sitcom spouse: caring, opinionated and occasionally a crying mess.

Moore parses her gift for comedically decorum-bursting tears — whether a neurotic Laura meltdown or a Mary Richards stress-filled outburst — this way: “Let those awful gurgles happen, and let yourself not be able to finish the sentence because you’ve run out of breath from trying so hard to be real. Just try to remember the last time you cried as an adult.”

She also made capri pants wildly popular. But as Moore points out, they started out as an acting choice.

“Every housewife on television wore these floral frocks, with little bowties around the waist,” she remembers. “I want to do what I do in real life, what my friends do, and that’s be a realistic wife who wears pants and doesn’t care how she looks.”

Moore’s Emmy-winning turn as Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was so culturally imprinted that when “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was being developed in 1969 through her just-formed company MTM Enterprises, it was determined that the character of new-to-Minneapolis, single Mary Richards couldn’t be divorced. (Imagined average viewer: “You mean she left that lovely Dick Van Dyke?”)

What emerged, though, over the seven-year-run of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was a television persona every bit as memorable as her ’60s portrayal of domestic bliss: an independent woman on her own, motivated by work, supported by female friends and a peer of the men in her life rather than a romantic object.

TV news producer Mary Richards wasn’t necessarily the perfect modern woman, but her struggles and triumphs meant something to female viewers, and they often let Moore know.

“I still hear it,” says Moore, who won her second Emmy for her groundbreaking self-titled show and saw a bronze statue of the character’s iconic opening-credits hat toss erected in Minneapolis. “I hear, ‘You made me feel that there was hope for me to be successful.’?”

There was still another facet to her acting abilities to show the public, however, and that came when Robert Redford cast her as brittle, grief-paralyzed and seemingly unconscionable mother Beth Conrad in the 1980 film “Ordinary People.” The performance earned her an Oscar nomination and a decided change in people’s reactions to her on the street.

“If I would run into somebody, they would rush over, then you could see them almost take a few steps back, as if they were scared,” says Moore, laughing. “It’s one of the highpoints of my career, my recognizing that I did perhaps have some talent.”

Moore has also used her celebrity to raise awareness about diabetes, a condition she’s dealt with for over 40 years.

“I’ve been one of the lucky ones,” she says of her health. “But to be able to talk to kids, to tell them not to lose hope, not to assume the worst about yourself, that gives me a wonderful feeling. I know how much it would have meant to me if there had been someone like me talking to them.”

Colleagues shine light on Moore

“I had heard that when they were casting ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ it was suggested that they contact the gal who supplied the legs on ‘Richard Diamond, Private Detective.’ They brought her in and, ever since then, she has proved to the world that the legs are only the beginning of an enormous talent that rises to her beautiful lips and her golden voice.”
— Ed Asner

“Mary and I were close friends even before ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ ever happened. My beloved husband, Allen Ludden, and Mary’s then-husband, Grant Tinker, were best friends. In fact, Mary and Grant were the first of Allen’s friends he took me to meet when we started going together. He and I were in the original ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ pilot audience with our fingers and toes tightly crossed. It worked obviously. My first memory of working with Mary was the way she captured any scene she was in, no matter what the dialogue was. She could say, ‘Won’t you sit down,’ and the scene was hers. It has been that way ever since. Needless to say, we still love each other with all our hearts.”
— Betty White

“Mary’s talent and sense of humor come from a place of compassion, courage and understanding. She deserves every honor that comes her way.”
— Dick Van Dyke

“Not one but two major TV shows owe a debt of gratitude to Mary Tyler Moore and her extraordinary talents. … She can do it all: act, sing, dance, and melt the hardest of hearts. I salute you, Mary, and I will continue saluting you.”
— Carl Reiner

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