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Remembering Mary Tyler Moore: Not Only ‘Brilliantly Funny,’ but Vulnerable

Variety logo Variety 1/31/2017 Cynthia Littleton
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About halfway through the seven-season run of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a week came when Moore had to spend a few days in the hospital for a minor procedure.

Work on the CBS comedy continued Monday through Thursday, with co-star Betty White subbing for Moore during the table read, script revisions, and blocking. By Friday, Moore was back on the CBS Radford lot for the final run-through and taping — and she nailed every line and set-up with ease.

“She was perfect,” recalls Jay Sandrich, who directed 119 of the 168 episodes of “Mary Tyler Moore” during its 1970-77 run.

Sandrich says his memory of that week came back to him as he grappled with the news of her death Jan. 25 at the age of 80.

The depth of Moore’s understanding of her TV alter-ego, the plucky Mary Richards, was a gift to everyone who worked on the show. “Everybody loved her,” Sandrich says. “What happens usually in comedy is there’s a person at the top who will not be happy about things, who constantly wants to change something. Mary wasn’t like that. She would talk with all of us all of the time. Sometimes she would suggest changes, but she never demanded anything. We all got along really well. It was just a pleasure to work there.

Moore’s death prompted an outpouring of commentary about the show’s influence, given its groundbreaking portrayal of a woman more focused on her career than on finding a husband. It was Moore’s comedic instincts and acting skill that made the character so real and inspiring to fans.

“Mary was absolutely the best comedic actress I have ever in my life seen or worked with,” says Allan Burns, “Mary Tyler Moore” co-creator and co-showrunner, with James L. Brooks. “She was not only brilliantly funny, she was vulnerable. She did not play it as a feminist heroine. She was a real person, fighting her way through.”

“She was not only brilliantly funny, she was vulnerable.”
Allan Burns

Off-screen, Moore was warm and self-effacing, and occasionally shy. She made pillows for cast members and producers to commemorate the show’s success.

Burns emphasized that she displayed uncommon generosity toward co-stars. He recalls an early table read at which Moore suggested that a funny line might be better if it came from Valerie Harper’s character, Rhoda Morgenstern, instead of from her.

“Where do you ever hear of a comedy star stepping aside and suggesting a supporting cast member carry the ball with a great line?” Burns asks. “That was Mary. She was a dream to work with.”

In addition to Harper, Moore supported the career of Cloris Leachman, who played Mary Richards’ landlord, Phyllis Lindstrom. Harper left for “Rhoda” in 1974; “Phyllis” came the following year. For sure, Moore had an interest in those spinoffs as co-owner of producer MTM Enterprises with her then-husband, revered TV executive Grant Tinker, who died in November. But Moore’s magnanimous ability to let others shine — and the self-confidence she had that her show would survive cast changes — transcended financial considerations, Burns notes.

“It was Mary who made those people stars,” he says. “It was all due to her grace of stepping aside and saying, ‘Go.’ ”

In the “Mary Tyler Moore” days, Moore had her name on the series and on the studio door — a rare combination even today. Yet she exhibited the same personal and professional qualities at the outset of her career as an actress, after getting her start as a dancer. Carl Reiner, creator of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” auditioned dozens of actresses before casting Moore as Laura Petrie for the 1961-66 run of the beloved CBS comedy. “She was grace personified. She could never take a wrong step,” Reiner says.

After “Mary Tyler Moore,” Moore went on to an Oscar nomination for 1980’s “Ordinary People” and success on Broadway. “She always found the grace note that would make something work in a script,” Burns says. “I’ve never met anybody who was as naturally good at what she was able to do on camera.”

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