NEW YORK -- Seated on the sofa in front of a window in her elegant Fifth Avenue apartment, her profile sharply defined against the sunny afternoon, Mary Tyler Moore is making a perfectly serious proposal: "I think it would be a wonderful experiment for everybody to just not drink for a while to see whether they can meet the challenges that have been masked by that one or two glasses of wine a night. Without the aid of a crutch like alcohol, you learn to stand on your own two feet and face down your demons."

That's what the five-time Emmy-winning actress learned to do seven years ago, when she checked into the Betty Ford Clinic for help with her own alcoholism. She says she's let go of her masochism, has learned to handle anger and is applying self-discipline to deal with her addictive personality. Now 53, she has made a gradual transition from insecure, dependent girl to confident, assured woman.

If it's tough to associate such heavy issues with this particular performer, that's because of an assumption that the real-life Mary Tyler Moore is identical to her idealized on-camera TV character, Mary Richards. Richards was the spunky, independent single career woman -- the first on series TV -- Moore played on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" from 1970 to 1977.

Tonight from 9:30 to 11 p.m. on Channel 9 Moore hosts "Mary Tyler Moore: The 20th Anniversary Show," a CBS special that reunites her and the rest of the show's cast: Ed Asner, Georgia Engel, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Gavin MacLeod and Betty White. (Ted Knight died in 1986.) Together, in a living room setting, they watch and react to clips from their landmark series. Says Moore of the present-day segments: "The reactions are our true reactions, and the last scene really did evoke a lot of tears. I walked around for three days afterward with a lump in my throat and an ache in my cheeks."

But when CBS first approached her to do the special, the actress was dubious. "I was so afraid of doing anything to tarnish the memory of that show," she says. "People speak of it with a kind of hushed awe and reverence, and I didn't want to ... hurt that overall feeling." She agreed only when she learned that the executive producers would be Jack Haley Jr., who produced the film "That's Entertainment!" (he also directed this special) and James L. Brooks, Allan Burns and Ed Weinberger, writer-producers of the series itself.

Relaxing at home, the slender, 5-foot-7 Moore wears little makeup other than lipstick and eyeliner, and her light brown hair is brushed in a casual, chin-length bob. Although her balletic figure is at least partly a result of weight watching and daily exercise, she says it's also "a matter of genes. It's mother and father and what they look like, and mine both look like a pair of aging Barbie dolls."

As for any confusion between Mary Richards and the actual human being who played her, Moore helps to clarify: "Mary Richards earnestly trudges through life with a sense of humor and a belief in her fellow man. I'm basically an optimist -- but there are times when I'm always looking at the dark side, fearing things aren't going to work out as I had hoped."

Moore attributes her ability to get laughs to writers and directors. "I don't have people in stitches in my personal life the way I do on camera," she says. "When I put my show together, I made it clear that I wanted everybody to be a contributor and that I wanted to be straight man a good deal of the time."

She says it was her difficulties in dealing with her shyness in her personal life that to a great extent led to her addiction to alcohol. Certain social situations, such as meeting people for the first time or at big events, facing reporters asking questions she doesn't expect, still make Moore tighten up. "Feeling uncomfortable at a cocktail party, not knowing what to say to a stranger, feeling stupid because I couldn't remember somebody's name -- all of these things alcohol used to help me gloss over," she says.

One on one, it is hard to imagine her becoming "terribly angry with someone," a state with which she says she used drinking to cope. "Now I have a method of dealing with my anger, and I don't have to drown it in alcohol. I can analyze the situation. You learn to do that when you're not stuffing your problems," she says. "But anger is not just the way you react to individual things, it's a point of view about life. And God knows, I had reason to be an angry person -- with the death of my son and the death of my sister, and my diabetes. I was not too thrilled at the way things were going."

In 1980, her 24-year-old son Richard by ex-husband Richard Meeker was killed by an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound. "He was playing with a gun that, as a result of his death, has been taken off the market because of its unreliability," Moore says. Two years before the death of her only child, the actress's sister committed suicide. "You have to understand," she says, "it still brings pain... . It does get better, but it never goes away."

Moore's alcoholism was, she insists, not apparent to others. "Very few people could have known there was anything wrong with me. I never missed a day's work. I never slurred my speech. I never fell down. But I had made up my mind that I would not drink anymore, and I found that difficult," she says. "I found that at 6 o'clock in the evening, I'd feel strange that I didn't have a cocktail; and I didn't like that feeling. So I'd say the next day, 'All right, starting today, I won't have the cocktail.' And maybe I'd go two or three days, but then I'd have the cocktail again. And I knew that it had a larger grip on me than I was comfortable with.

"I decided I wanted to do more with my life than alcohol was allowing me to do, so I went to the Betty Ford Clinic," she says. Though Moore was hoping to "anonymously lose myself in the crowd," word got out. "But I'm not bitter over that," she says, "because good has come from it. A lot of women, especially, learned from my example that you need not be a clown, out-and-out farce drunk to be able to say, 'I need help and I'm going to change my life for the better.' "

During the 13 years that "MTM" has been off the air, Moore's professional life has been a seesaw. She won an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe award for her role in the film "Ordinary People" and a special Tony for "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" on Broadway.

Less enthusiastically received were such films as "Just Between Friends" and two short-lived CBS television series. She holds the network responsible for the failure of the shows, not viewer rejection based on her change of TV character. "Rather than being a matter of not letting go of Mary Richards, it was a matter of terrible selections of time periods," she says emphatically, "and that's one reason I won't consider doing another series. Until, and unless, they will allow the producers a part in deciding the time period, it's an uphill battle and an unfair one. But if ... that very hugely important aspect of the success or failure of a show is left entirely to one {network} individual," says Moore, "there's something wrong and I've got better things to do with my time."

Although she's repeatedly asked to consider new weekly series, Moore says she's happy enough making the occasional television miniseries and two or three TV movies a year. She misses the weekly-show way of life but would commit to a series only if it can be produced in New York. She does not want to be apart from her husband, Robert Levine, a 38-year-old cardiologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

Moore says the 15-year age difference between the couple had little to do with their marrying six years ago. "We fell in love because there were aspects of each other that we, in our own peculiar, needful ways, wanted," she says. "We like each other's sense of humor. I like his stability and conservatism. He likes my capriciousness." Then she jokes: "My husband walks the dogs early in the morning. He can handle that better than I -- he's younger."

After a particularly boring summer two years ago, Moore consulted a psychologist specializing in IQ and career placement. She was curious to see if she was suited for work other than acting. Not especially, the tests disclosed. An interesting discovery, however, was that she suffers from dyscalculia, a disorder that is similar to dyslexia but affects mathematical ability. "That answers so many questions I had as a child," says Moore. "If back then they knew what it was, they wouldn't have said to me, 'You're a bad girl,' or 'a stupid girl.' They would have given me alternative methods for learning math, and I might have gone to college and grown up with a different expectation. I might just be returning from a day teaching a university course instead of being interviewed by you."

Jane Wollman is a New York-based writer whose fifth book, "Funny Women," will be published by Dembner Books/W.W. Norton & Co.