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Mary Tyler Moore, TV star who became symbol of women’s liberation, dies at 80

Mary Tyler Moore, whose comic timing and all-American beauty made her a leading TV star and Emmy Award-winning actress before she took on dramatic roles in films, and whose 1970s situation comedy about the life of a professional single woman was considered a cultural and feminist milestone, died on Jan. 25 at a hospital in Greenwich, Conn. She was 80.

Mara Buxbaum, a representative of Ms. Moore, announced the death in a statement. The actress, who had a home in Greenwich, struggled with diabetes much of her life and underwent brain surgery in 2011 to remove a benign tumor from the lining tissue around her brain.

Ms. Moore, who played the spunky housewife on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in the 1960s and an idealistic career woman on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the 1970s, was an actress of dynamic range and accomplishment. She won a 1980 Tony Award for playing a quadriplegic sculptor in “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” and an Emmy for her role as a villainous orphanage director in the TV production “Stolen Babies” (1993). She was nominated for an Oscar as the frosty matriarch in “Ordinary People” (1980), Robert Redford’s directorial debut.

Ms. Moore’s production company, MTM Enterprises, created groundbreaking TV shows during the 1970s and 1980s, including “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere.” But she was primarily considered one of television’s finest comic actresses because of her roles on two of the most popular sitcoms of all time.

‘Mary Tyler Moore changed the world for all women’: Celebrities react to star’s death

Actress Mary Tyler Moore has died at 80. She'll be remembered for an iconic television career that inspired young working women. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

She received two Emmy Awards for her role as Laura Petrie, the comely and slightly scatterbrained wife of a TV comedy writer, on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which aired on CBS from 1961 to 1966. Ms. Moore, sporting capri pants and a Jackie Kennedy bouffant, held her own against veteran entertainers such as Van Dyke (as her husband), Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie. Ms. Moore said she always thought of herself as “a new kind of comedian — the funny straight woman.”

Carl Reiner, one of the show’s creative forces, once said of Ms. Moore that “she had a ping in her voice that got to me the first time I heard her.” The sexual spark she generated with her TV husband was a novel twist on previous TV homemakers, who were generally portrayed as maternal and gowned in skirts and pearls.

After “The Dick Van Dyke Show” ended at a peak moment in its popularity, Ms. Moore made several Hollywood films, including the musicals “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (1967) opposite Julie Andrews and “Change of Habit” (1969) with Elvis Presley. She reemerged on the small screen with “Mary Tyler Moore,” which aired on CBS from 1970 to 1977.

Often considered one of the most literate sitcoms of its era, “Mary Tyler Moore” was also one of the first sitcoms to have a single working woman as the lead character. Its appeal was often attributed to its feminist consciousness, with Ms. Moore playing a fictional Minneapolis assistant TV news producer named Mary Richards who navigates a career, friendships and single life.

The show was lauded for its realistic portrayal of the modern woman — one whose life focused on work, not family, and one in which men were colleagues, not husbands or love interests. It touched on subjects once considered taboo, such as birth control.

“Thirty-three, unmarried and unworried — Mary is the liberated woman’s ideal,” TV Guide wrote in 1973.

But, primarily, the show was funny. It even dared to joke about death. In the episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” the entire newsroom — except Mary Richards — gets the giggles after a clown’s demise. At the funeral, only Mary bursts out laughing at the minister’s eulogy: “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”

Ms. Moore said that the episode tested her — she was laughing at the wrong times — and that she completed filming only through “sheer terror of losing the faith the cast had placed in me.”

“Mary Tyler Moore” was pitched to TV executives with Richards as a young divorcée. But network executives feared that Ms. Moore was so identified as Laurie Petrie from “The Dick Van Dyke Show” that viewers would think her character had divorced Van Dyke’s. Her character was rewritten as a single woman who had moved to the city after ending a long relationship with a doctor.

Allan Burns, one of the show’s creators, once said, “We never could get over the fact that, in the byzantine thinking, they thought it was preferable for [Mary] to have lived with someone than to have been divorced.”

Ms. Moore’s appeal counterbalanced the strong personalities of her male co-stars: Ed Asner as her brusque boss, Lou Grant; Ted Knight as the arrogant anchorman Ted Baxter; and Gavin Mac­Leod as the jaded writer Murray Slaughter. Richards’s work life was offset by her all-female home life with Cloris Leachman as her ditsy landlady, Phyllis, and Valerie Harper as her best friend and neighbor, Rhoda. Leachman’s and Harper’s characters developed a following and became featured in spinoff series, as did Asner’s Lou Grant.

When the series ended in 1977, Mary Richards’s life was not resolved in a predictable way. She did not get married and had no prospects for a husband.

Ms. Moore was nominated for an Emmy Award as lead actress every year during the show’s seven-year run, winning three times. She also had a behind-the-scenes presence through her production company, which she had formed in 1969 with then-husband Grant Tinker.

When CBS approached the actress to star in her own show, the duo, under MTM, inked a deal with the network that gave them part ownership and creative control of the series, which was virtually unheard of at the time.

The company, which bore Ms. Moore’s initials and a kitten mascot meowing after each show — tipping a hat to MGM’s roaring lion — went on to produce other TV hits in the 1970s and 1980s, including “The Bob Newhart Show,” “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Remington Steele” and the three “Mary Tyler Moore” spinoffs. Aside from her self-titled sitcom, Ms. Moore had little involvement with development of the company’s other hit shows.

“Mary Tyler Moore deserves a spot in the pantheon of great comic actresses like Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, and it is for this that she will be most remembered,” said TV historian Robert Thompson of Syracuse University. “Her further accomplishments as a song-and-dance performer, a serious dramatic actress and the co-founder of one of television’s most important production companies, however, are evidence of a versatility shown by very few people in the history of American entertainment.”

Mary Tyler Moore was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 29, 1936. The family later lived in Queens and then Los Angeles. Her father was a utilities company clerk with frustrated show business aspirations. He was, Ms. Moore said, a cold taskmaster. Her mother was an alcoholic, which foreshadowed Ms. Moore’s own struggles with alcoholism and her stay in the early 1980s at the Betty Ford alcohol and drug treatment center in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Ms. Moore aspired to a career in dance. Fresh out of high school in 1955, she was cast as “Happy Hotpoint,” a dancing elf promoting kitchen appliances. The commercials, which appeared during breaks of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” led to work on other TV programs, including as the sexy phone operator Sam on “Richard Diamond, Private Detective” (1957), starring David Janssen.

She auditioned to play Danny Thomas’s daughter on “Make Room for Daddy” but was turned down because of her tiny, upturned nose. “With a nose like yours, my darling, you don’t look like you could belong to me,” Thomas reportedly told Ms. Moore. Thomas, whose company produced “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” recommended her for the role that would be her breakthrough.

In 1961, she divorced her first husband, Ocean Spray salesman Richard Meeker. (Laura Petrie’s maiden name on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was Meeker.)

She married Tinker, a TV production executive who later became chairman and chief executive of NBC, in 1962. Her second marriage crumbled soon after her only child, Richard Meeker Jr., accidentally shot and killed himself in 1980. Tinker died in November 2016.

For Ms. Moore, her son’s death was perhaps the lowest moment in a life of personal tragedies. Two years earlier, her younger sister had died of a drug overdose.

In 1983, she married Robert Levine, a cardiologist whom she met when he was treating Ms. Moore’s mother. He survives.

After “Mary Tyler Moore,” the actress said she “decided that I was not going to play any more characters with whom I was totally familiar.” She focused on more dramatic roles, most strikingly in “Ordinary People,” based on Judith Guest’s novel about a suburban family struck by tragedy. As Beth Jarrett, Ms. Moore brought a surprising iciness to the role of a mother struggling to keep her life together after the death of her favorite son.

She received an Academy Award nomination as best actress, and New York Times film critic Vincent Canby praised her performance as “remarkably fine, simultaneously delicate and tough and desperate.”

Ms. Moore also starred in offbeat films such as David O. Russell’s “Flirting With Disaster” (1996), playing the neurotic adoptive mother of Ben Stiller. She received Emmy nominations for a series of roles in made-for-TV dramas: a TV news correspondent battling breast cancer in “First, You Cry” (1978); the wife of a doctor who has a heart attack in “Heartsounds” (1984), opposite James Garner; and the increasingly unstable first lady Mary Todd Lincoln in Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln” (1988), opposite Sam Waterston.

She once told the New York Times that over a long career she was uncomfortable being pigeonholed by her successes in comedy, particularly as a symbol of women’s liberation.

"I can't live with that stuff," she said. "I can't carry it around any more than I can be conscious of the fact that those cameras could represent 50 million people. . . . The only time I think about it is when I try to get a good table in a restaurant, and the maitre d' just never saw TV or 'Ordinary People.' Then I think to myself, 'But, I'm a symbol!' "

Wiseman is a former Washington Post reporter.

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