Mary Tyler Moore: the original working girl
Comedy icon helped to define a new vision of womanhood and paved the way for sitcom stars like Jennifer Aniston and Lena Dunham, writes Jonathan Bernstein
In the 2012 pilot episode of Girls, Lena Dunham and Allison Williams' characters are depicted falling asleep together to an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That wasn't a random or ironic cultural reference. It was there to make the point that a show made in 1970 could resonate with a pair of self-obsessed contemporary millennials.
Detecting the DNA of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the female-driven TV comedies of the past couple of decades is not a strenuous task. It's there in 30 Rock, in Friends and in Sex And The City. But as much as these were high-profile, award-winning shows, the attention and adulation they and their stars commanded pales in comparison next to the achievements of Mary Tyler Moore. The kind of TV fame she enjoyed doesn't happen anymore.
It's rare for an actor to play one iconic role in a career, let alone a role that, to all intents and purposes holds up a mirror to society. Mary Tyler Moore, who has died aged 80, did it twice. Born in Brooklyn Heights in 1936, the former dancer was best known for being the face of Hotpoint washing machines in a series of commercials. Her voice and legs appeared regularly on a 1960 detective show but the entirety of Moore didn't get a full-time TV job until 1961 when Carl Reiner cast her in The Dick Van Dyke Show as comedy writer Dick Petrie's homemaker wife, Laura.
Van Dyke acknowledged his co-star's influence in a tribute to her, saying: "I think a lot of young women got a lot of inspiration from her. She was way ahead of her time."
Until Moore showed up in her tight capri pants, her flipped-up hair and her big guileless grin, the sitcom housewife came in two varieties. She was either Donna Reed, a wholesome purveyor of homespun homilies who was always busy in the kitchen and slept in a separate bed from her breadwinner hubby, or she was Lucille Ball, a prattling whirlwind who schemed in secret and cowered in fear from her husband, who often ended episodes hauling her across his knee and spanking some sense into her.
Laura Petrie broke that mould. She and Van Dyke's Dick Petrie were supportive of each other and, more than that, they were open about their still-lingering marital attraction. "We brought romance to comedy," Moore said. "And, yes, Rob and Laura had sex."
Not only were the Petries equals in an otherwise patriarchal sitcom landscape, neither actor was territorial about the laughs they went after. "She was one of the few who could be funny and maintain her femininity at the same time," recalled Van Dyke, who would go on to say, "She's the best comedienne in the US today. She's so darn good that non-pros don't notice it. But those of us in the business love to watch her."
If Dick Petrie spent most of the show falling over his own feet, Laura spent an entire episode with her toe stuck in a hotel bathroom tap.
Laura didn't have a career or a life outside of her family but she wasn't terrifyingly perfect and she wasn't a clownish caricature. She made being a wife and mother at the start of the 1960s seem sexy.
The Dick Van Dyke Show ended in 1966. Four years later, Moore returned to television with a series that took less than 10 minutes to make an impression that would last a lifetime.
"American audiences won't tolerate divorce in a series' lead any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with moustaches and people who live in New York," grumbled a network executive on hearing the concept of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The year 1970 was a less enlightened time so the show's creators, James L Brooks and Allan Burns, made Moore's character, Mary Richards, a single 30ish woman who moves to snowy Minneapolis to make her career in local news.
From the sustained rush of joy that is the opening theme song, 'Love Is All Around', with its poignant "You're going to make it after all" coda to the end-of-credits freeze of Moore in Minneapolis's Nicolet mall joyfully tossing her woollen Tam-O-Shanter in the air, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was instantly aspirational for a generation of American women.
Moore's Mary Richards was a fount of undimmed optimism ("You've got spunk," growled newsroom boss Lou Grant, played by Ed Asner, on meeting his perky new hire. "I hate spunk.") with an indefatigable can-do attitude. But the show didn't shy away from Mary's sporadic loneliness, the income inequality she faced in the newsroom, and the growing realisation that her workmates and her coterie of friends might be the only family she ever knows.
Mary Richards was American network television's most prominent and influential unmarried, childless, independent woman. Moore herself stated that she did not subscribe to Gloria Steinem's belief that "women owe it to themselves to have a career" but her presence on TV screens through the 1970s helped, if not retire the pejorative use of the word spinster, then certainly lessen its usage.
"It meant a lot to me the second time I was single and home alone on Saturday nights to discover that Mary Tyler Moore was home, too," said writer Nora Ephron. By the time Moore decided to end the series in 1977, the show had won 29 Emmys, a record that would not be broken until Frasier went one better in 2002.
The success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show elevated Moore, along with then-husband Grant Tinker, into one of TV's most prolific producers.
Her MTM production company successfully spun off her small-screen sidekick Valerie Harper's abrasive Rhoda character into a show that, at its peak, attracted an audience of around 30 million. Ed Asner's Lou Grant got his own drama series and MTM was responsible for the likes of The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP In Cincinnati, St Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues.
After embodying America's dream wife in the 1960s and its liberated career woman of the 1970s, Moore held up one last mirror in 1981 when she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role in Robert Redford's film Ordinary People. Allen Burns once said of his sitcom's star, "It's comfortable for people to think there is someone like her in America."