Mary Tyler Moore, whose portrayal of a spunky Minneapolis newswoman on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” made her a TV icon and inspired a generation of young women, died Wednesday.
Few sitcoms achieved more critical success or resonated more deeply with viewers than “MTM,” in large part because of the character of Mary Richards, who valued work and friendship above marriage, a radical concept when the show debuted on CBS on 1970.
During its seven-year run, the show collected 29 Emmys, a record only surpassed by “Saturday Night Live,” “Frasier” and “Game of Thrones.” More important, Richards became a role model for teenage girls who would emulate her character’s can-do attitude as adults.
“As a girl growing up in the ’70s, I thought anything was possible, and that’s largely because of Mary Tyler Moore,” Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said after learning the actress, 80, had died of cardiopulmonary arrest after being hospitalized with pneumonia. Hodges is such a fan that she turned a City Hall space into the Moore Conference Room. She uses Joan Jett’s version of the “MTM” theme, “Love Is All Around,” as introductory music before speeches.
“MTM” proved you didn’t have to be brittle or brazen to make it after all.
Some viewers balked at her character’s eagerness to please the men in her life and the fact that she almost always referred to her gruff boss as Mr. Grant. But even leading feminists recognized Richards as a breakthrough figure.
“This was [such] a happy human image of a woman as an independent person that several generations of young [and not-so-young] women stopped suffering if they didn’t have a date on Saturday night,” Betty Friedan wrote in a 1978 article.
Richards wasn’t exactly a goody two-shoes. As the series progressed, we watched her demand a raise, get suspended, go to jail to protect a source and come down with a case of the giggles at a funeral. On occasion she stayed out all night. She was on the pill.
“She seduced people by playing a really sweet good girl, doing everything she was supposed to be doing,” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of the book “Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted,” told the Star Tribune in 2013. “By the time the show got racier and edgier, it was OK because she was already accepted.”
In the process of creating a pop-culture icon, Moore and the show sold the Twin Cities as a progressive metropolis.
To this day, tourists cruise through the Kenwood neighborhood to catch a glimpse of the Victorian house where Richards resided during the show’s early seasons. In 2002, the city of Minneapolis and TV Land teamed up to erect a statue on the Nicollet Mall, commemorating the moment in the opening credits in which Richards hurls her tam in the air after a satisfying day of shopping.
In 1999, Entertainment Weekly named the shot as the second-greatest moment in TV history, behind only John Kennedy’s assassination and funeral.
“Tossing the hat inspired so many women,” former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton told the Wall Street Journal. “It showed us we’re capable. We’re bold. And we’re cute.”
Moore showed up for the ceremony, shivering her way through a chilly May morning with thousands of fans. It was her last public appearance in the Twin Cities.
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She was born Dec. 29, 1936, in the New York neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights and moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was 8.
Her early roles depended heavily on her dance ability, and her physique. She got her first break shortly after high school, prancing around as a pixie in TV commercials for Hotpoint appliances. She played a receptionist in “Richard Diamond, Private Detective,” but the camera never panned above her shapely legs.
Carl Reiner plucked her out of relative obscurity in 1961 to play a housewife in “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” a role that initially seemed built to prop its title star up as the ideal family man. But the writers quickly recognized their ingenue’s comic talent and began giving her more to do than look exasperated. Episodes in which her character, Laura Petrie, gets her toe stuck in the bathtub and accidentally reveals that her husband’s boss sports a toupée helped her win two Emmys.
After the series ended in 1966, Moore tried her hand at feature films, appearing opposite Julie Andrews in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and trying to resist Elvis Presley’s charms as a nun in 1969’s “Change of Habit.” An attempt at a Broadway musical version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” closed during previews.
Moore would become a major star only after returning to the small screen.
In “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” she went on to win three Emmys as lead actress in a comedy, tying her with Candice Bergen and Julia Louis-Dreyfus for the most ever in that category. She won another as 1974’s “actress of the year.”
“When she came on, it changed America,” co-star Cloris Leachman said in a PBS documentary, giving personal thanks for a series that also provided memorable roles for Betty White, Ted Knight, Ed Asner and Valerie Harper.
As a producer, Moore had input on casting, and her contributions behind the screen were often overlooked. She and her second husband, Grant Tinker, established MTM Enterprises, which would eventually churn out “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere” and “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Her 1978 variety show “Mary” bombed, but she was savvy enough to hire relative unknowns Michael Keaton and David Letterman as performers.
There would be other roles. Three years after playing the lovable Richards, she was cast as a brittle suburbanite in “Ordinary People,” based on the bestselling novel by Minnesotan Judith Guest. The movie won the Academy Award for best picture and earned Moore her only Oscar nomination. That same year, she received a special Tony Award for her performance as a quadriplegic with a death wish in “Whose Life Is It Anyway?”
In 1986, she became only the third woman to be inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, preceded by Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. But she wasn’t done — she added a seventh Emmy in 1993 for a dramatic performance in the TV movie “Stolen Babies.”
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“MTM” was never a megahit — peaking at No. 7 in the its third season — but its impact was felt long after Richards turned off the lights in the WJM newsroom. When Nick at Nite began running reruns in 1992, it immediately became the cable network’s top-rated series. “30 Rock” often paid homage to the show, and the creators of “Friends” used the “MTM” series finale as a template when planning their own farewell.
Memories of the show have faded somewhat. DVD sales were disappointing; Moore’s statue lost its primo spot last year due to street repairs, but it’s expected to return to the mall later this year, even if most shoppers under age 40 have no idea why the frozen stranger is tossing her hat in the air.
Moore has been largely out of the public eye in the past 20 years as she battled myriad health issues related to her heart and kidneys. In 2001, she underwent surgery to remove a benign brain tumor. Her last acting gig was a 2013 cameo on “Hot in Cleveland.” She wrote two memoirs that chronicled her battle with diabetes and her successful rehabilitation from alcohol dependence.
In 2000, she resurrected her beloved character in “Mary and Rhoda,” a TV movie in which the two old friends reunite in New York City. It flopped. Perhaps viewers couldn’t forgive Mary Richards for abandoning the Twin Cities.
“I hope when a little girl walks by the statue, she’ll ask her mother who that was, and it’ll be explained to her that she was a young woman who had a dream and followed it through,” Moore said shortly after the unveiling in 2002 while finishing up breakfast at Basil’s, the Crystal Court restaurant that still has a table named in her honor.
“I think that had I not felt a need to prove myself worthy of love, I might have not become an actress. I might be teaching English somewhere. And wouldn’t that be a shame?”
Spoken like a true Minnesotan.