Mary Tyler Moore: Driven to Perform & Push Boundaries

“I knew at a very early age what I wanted to do. Some people refer to it as indulging in my instincts and artistic bent. I call it just showing off, which was what I did from about three years of age on.”

Mary Tyler Moore, who played a huge part in changing the role of women through her groundbreaking work in TV comedy and acting, was driven by a strong desire to perform and connect with her audience from the time she started entertaining her family as a young girl. This drive – to dance, to sing, to act and to make people laugh – steered her to phenomenal success in The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show on the small screen and in movies such as Ordinary People.

Mary died at age 80 on Jan. 25, 2017 after more than her share of challenges in life – a less-than-perfect childhood affected by her mother’s alcoholism, type 1 diabetes, her own alcoholism, two divorces and the untimely deaths of her only child and siblings. A Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Mary believed even the tough times have their place in life:  “Take chances, make mistakes. That’s how you grow. Pain nourishes your courage. You have to fail in order to practice being brave.”

Big Break:

One of her first big breaks – landing the role of Laura Petrie, the charmingly loopy wife of the star, Dick Van Dyke, who played Rob, on The Dick Van Dyke Show (Van Dyke) in 1961 – came after a string of rejections. She was shocked when she was called to read for the part. “I had a brief moment of recognition: this was mine, and it had come for me. But what I heard myself saying was, ‘I just can’t take another rejection, especially not this one.’”

The show became famous for its clever writing and terrific comic ensemble.  It also pushed gender boundaries; Mary, for example, insisted on Laura wearing Capri pants instead of dresses part of the time. This was very significant in an era when the word “pregnant” could not be said on the show and Laura and Rob slept in twin beds.

The Comedian Blooms:

Over the 158 episodes, Mary explored her talent as a comedian and the “delight” of getting a laugh of her own, rather than as the “straight man” to Van Dyke. Her drive to try a new way of connecting with the audience was a plus for her character, the show and her career. She recalled a turning point in this excerpt from her autobiography, After All.

“(The) ‘Blond-Haired Brunette’ (episode) changed my working life. The writers began to test me further. Every episode gave me a few more funny moments to play with. And through all this evolution, Dick Van Dyke stood by, cheering my progress, giving me time to work things out for myself, and encouraging me to find the core within myself that would make the words mine.

“Laura, as written, was a classy lady who had some thoughts of her own. However, my feeling of control, which was the result of this new dimension, added to her impact. I was a member, new, but still a member of the inner circle of comedians.”

Mary may be best remembered as Mary Richards, a single woman working as a local TV news producer in Minneapolis, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (MTM) – one of the most acclaimed programs in US TV history.  It was a new beginning for the actress after an uneven period in her career, including her “self-diagnosed malperformance” starring in Breakfast at Tiffany’s on Broadway.  Running from 1970 to 1977, MTM left a lasting impact. (In 2013, the Writers Guild of America ranked it No. 6 on its list of the 101 Best Written TV Series of All Time.) But the early days were rocky; audience response to the “test” episode went down in the annals of CBS as the most negative reaction to a show in its history. Feedback included:  “…Mary is a loser.  Over 30 and still not married!” Relegated to the death-sentence time slot of 7:30 pm on Tuesdays, Mary and the rest of the talented ensemble cast soldiered on. Grant Tinker, Mary’s second husband, was also a tremendous support. Grant and Mary formed MTM Enterprises to produce the show, and the company went on to dominate TV with a string of hits like WKRP in Cincinnati and St. Elsewhere.

Doing Things Differently:

From the beginning, doing things differently was at the heart of the MTM’s success, showcasing some of the most adventurous and truthful comedy on TV. For example, the “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode tackled death – an unconventional subject for a situation comedy in 1975.  Mary Richards was to have a surprise bout of laughter at the funeral for Chuckles the Clown, a children’s entertainer. As she prepared for the scene, Mary, the actress, experienced uncontrollable giggling for days and became terrified that she’d laugh too early and ruin the scene. Reflecting on the situation in After All she commented:

“Looking back on it, I realize that I have always chosen work that challenges me, because if I don’t go in to work a little scared, I don’t have interest in it. I need to go to work thinking, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to play this.

“I don’t have confidence in myself, but I am able to respond to a need, a challenge. Like a fireman, I must achieve whatever it is I set out to do. I must save the person from the burning building, reach the goal. I learned that drive, professionally, from watching movies about movies. The understudy always goes beyond what is necessary. I had a strong identification. The need to push myself became part of my role to live by.”

Discipline & Dance:

Mary also drew tremendous strength from dancing. She studied ballet and tap four days a week from the age of nine until high school graduation and started her show business career as a dancer.  “Dance, especially the training for it, is a big part of me. It shapes the discipline I’ve brought to my work as an actress, initiated my belief in the adage ‘No pain, no gain,’ and generally provided a home that’s never changed. No matter what fears assaulted me, as person, actress, or dancer, dance was constantly giving me the familiar steps I needed to grow.”

Growing was again on the table for the actress when MTM wound up. Mary’s inner drive to meet new challenges led her to substantive dramatic acting projects such as Beth in Ordinary People – the Holy Grail of her career:  “I never wanted anything so much.”  She was thrilled when director Robert Redford cast her as an emotionally guarded mother. Mary earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance.

Mary’s rich legacy as an actress and a person, including her important work with JDRF, formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, lives on. She was motivated by a desire to spark a unique connection with the audience, try new things and maximize her talents. She was the girl who could “turn the world on with her smile,” as the lyrics in the introductory song for The Mary Tyler Moore Show say, but she was also much, much more.

To learn more about Mary Tyler Moore’s amazing life and career, check out her autobiographies After All and Growing up Again: Life, Loves, and Oh Yeah, Diabetes.

Author: RoseMary MacVicar-Elliott

RoseMary MacVicar-Elliott is a writer, editor and child of the ’70s in Toronto, Ont. Currently seeking new professional opportunities, her experience spans association and nonprofit communications, trade media, local journalism and freelancing.