Who can turn the world on with her smile?
Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?
Well it’s you girl, and you should know it
With each glance and every little movement you show it
Love is all around, no need to waste it
You can never tell, why don’t you take it
You’re gonna make it after all
These lyrics to the theme song to The Mary Tyler Moore Show — the first line in particular — would come across as shameless star flattery if the star in question wasn’t as beloved and radiant as Mary Tyler Moore was for the run of her eponymous ’70s sitcom. If anything, Sonny Curtis’ lyrics undersold Moore’s powers. At that moment in time, Moore not only could turn the world on with her smile, but could probably have powered several nations for a while through its sheer wattage.
Moore, who died today at the age of 80, was, simply put, one of the greatest and most important stars television has ever produced — and, for that matter, one of the medium’s most important producers. In The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she starred in two of TV’s best-ever sitcoms, and her production company was responsible for many more classics (including arguably the most influential TV drama of them all: Hill Street Blues). She was a feminist icon, a source of joy, and a tremendous businesswoman. She made it after all, again and again and again.
Prior to being cast on The Dick Van Dyke Show as Laura Petrie, ebullient wife to Van Dyke’s Rob, Moore was a dancer and model, whose acting work waxed and waned due to her appearance. Her first regular role was as Sam, the switchboard operator for Richard Diamond, Private Detective, but she appeared only in silhouette as a breathy voice with a sexy pair of legs, the better for male viewers to conjure up their own fantasy image of her. (When she tried asking producers for a modest raise, they told her they could easily have another actress play the part, and did.) Later, she didn’t land the role of Danny Thomas’s daughter on his own sitcom because Thomas didn’t think viewers would believe they were related, given the gulf in size between their respective noses.
But Thomas was so impressed by Moore’s talent and determination (he would later tell TV Guide that she offered to have her nose surgically enlarged if it would get her the part) that he recommended her to Carl Reiner when Reiner was busy casting the semi-autobiographical The Dick Van Dyke Show, based on Reiner’s time as a writer for Sid Caesar. Moore was over a decade younger than Van Dyke, but they shared a certain loose-limbed abandon, not to mention features that could play as attractive or goofy depending on the context of the scene and performance. Rob and Laura were essentially TV’s first yuppies, and a kind of junior version of the Camelot fantasy Americans were enjoying with the Kennedys in the White House, but he kept tripping over that ottoman, while she had a tendency to screw up her face and let out a comic wail of, “Oh, ROBBBBBBBB!” when things went awry at home or work. Laura’s signature capri pants became a fashion sensation, especially after people saw how easily Moore could swivel her hips in them, with the kind of magnetism and charm Megan Draper wishes she had:
Reiner ended The Dick Van Dyke Show after only five seasons, while it was still on top creatively and commercially, and Moore tried movies for a few years, including a turn as a nun in the Elvis Presley movie Change of Habit. But while she would eventually find success on the big screen — including an Academy Award nomination for playing the cold and remote mother in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People — TV was the medium where she was always most at home, and where she would begin one of the great second acts in entertainment history.
In 1969, Moore and then-husband Grant Tinker formed MTM Enterprises, a production company whose first major project was Moore’s own TV comeback vehicle, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Moore played Mary Richards, a woman coming out of the end of a long-term relationship who tries for a fresh start in Minneapolis, working in the WJM newsroom for demanding TV news producer Lou Grant (Ed Asner) and befriending new neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper). Though Moore and creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns couldn’t get CBS’ permission to make Mary a divorcée, the show was in every other way a feminist trailblazer. Mary dated off and on, but the series’ primary focus was on her work at the station, where she quickly earned the respect and adoration of Lou, copywriter Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod), and anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight); and on her friendships at home with both Rhoda (Valerie Harper) and landlady Phyllis (Cloris Leachman). Generations of women have credited Mary Richards with a desire to go into the news business (the writing of this obituary was interrupted by a brief MSNBC interview where Katy Tur recalled growing up on the reruns on Nick at Nite), and Moore and her collaborators worked hard behind the scenes to make sure there were women on the writing staff to not only better reflect the concerns of the show’s female characters, but to create a workplace reminiscent of the one where Mary Richards found a home.
But even if you attempted to separate the series from its social importance, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a classic: a generous ensemble comedy where everyone got a chance to shine and be human (even the usually idiotic Ted), and where the whole was somehow even greater than the sum of its many amazing parts. And in Mary’s struggle to stifle laughter at the funeral for Chuckles the Clown — crushed to death by an elephant while wearing a peanut costume — the show gave us either the single-best or second-best (depending on how you feel about Lucy at the chocolate factory) sitcom moment ever constructed:
As with The Dick Van Dyke Show, this one ended while it was still an enormous hit and awards magnet, because Moore didn’t want to wear out her welcome. By the time Mary, Lou, and the others gathered for a tearful goodbye in the newsroom, the show, and production company, had built an empire: not just spinoffs about Rhoda and Phyllis (and, eventually — in the rare instance of a sitcom character being exported into a drama — Lou), but The Bob Newhart Show, and later WKRP in Cincinnati, The White Shadow, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Newhart, and more. Like Lucille Ball before her, Moore’s impact on the medium runs much longer and deeper than the sitcom that bore her name.
Moore tried various other series over the years — Mary, a variety show she did shortly after The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended, gave early breaks to Michael Keaton and David Letterman — but Laura Petrie and Mary Richards cast such long shadows that it was impossible for new characters to measure up. (Her former TV husband Dick Van Dyke would need several decades’ distance from Rob Petrie before he got another hit in Diagnosis: Murder, where Moore was able to do it within a few years.) She would eventually revisit both roles, first in the 2000 TV-movie Mary and Rhoda, then in 2004’s The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited.
But she kept on working, as well as raising money for juvenile diabetes research, having been diagnosed with Type I diabetes in her 30s. Though most of her recent work — including her last TV appearance, in an episode of Hot in Cleveland opposite her old co-star Betty White — traded in some way on her status as The Legendary Mary Tyler Moore, she was always in there giving a real performance, with the same energy, and the same twinkle, she had in the ’60s and ’70s.
Mary Richards and Lou Grant’s first meeting famously concludes with the gruff newsman studying his new hire and declaring, “You’ve got spunk.” Mary takes this as a compliment, until he barks out, “I hate spunk.” Mary won him over in time, as she did almost everyone she encountered on that great, great series. But America had long since fallen in love with Mary Tyler Moore by the time her fictional counterpart walked into Mr. Grant’s office, and new generations kept falling in love long after Mary, Lou, and the others came together for a group hug, and a long group shuffle to grab some tissues.
Mary Tyler Moore is sadly gone, but that smile — and all she did with it — will never be forgotten.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org