Growing up with Mary

Brian D. Johnson January 13 1986

Growing up with Mary

Brian D. Johnson January 13 1986

She walked into the living rooms of North America in September, 1970, and applied for a job at “WJM-TV” in Minneapolis. Her future boss, Lou Grant, told her, “You’ve got spunk.” Scowling, he added, “I hate spunk.” But Mary Richards got the job—and Mary Tyler Moore won a cherished place at television’s family hearth. Last month an older, wiser Mary, seeking to renew her special relationship with prime time, applied for another job—on a sleazy tabloid named the Chicago Eagle. Its editor, Frank DeMarco, told her, “Mary, I just don’t think you’re tough enough.” Then, when his phone rang, she ripped it out of the wall.

Mary is back, turning the world on with her smile—but reacting to its injustices with a darkening frown. Eight years after retiring from the popular Mary Tyler Moore Show, she has returned with a new half-hour series titled simply Mary. “It’s nice to see her back,” said Canadian comedian Catherine O’Hara. “Everyone in Hollywood compares what they want to do in situation comedy with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She has to imitate her old show as much as anyone else.”

Mature: The new show is much like the old—a situation comedy split between a newsroom and a living room—and once again Moore plays a single career woman coping in a climate of friendly chaos. But the new Mary is more mature and considerably less pliant than the one who used to whine, “Ohhhh, Mr. Grant.” Television’s favorite symbol of embattled optimism has, like the generation that grew up with her, shed her illusions. Unlike the irrepressibly sweet Mary Richards, Mary Brenner knows how to get angry. When the Chicago Eagle's editor tells her that she could not handle a job at his paper, she fires back: “You don’t know anything about me. I have faced more than my share of crises with a great deal of poise.” The editor is intrigued. “Personal crises?” he asks. “None of your business,” she snaps.

Indeed, since discontinuing The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1977, Moore has weathered her share of personal crises. As syndication reruns expanded the show’s audience to more than 50 million viewers, turning her into one of North America’s most dependable household icons, her admiring public saw a rapid succession of traumas sweep away the foundations of her private life. In 1978 her younger sister, Elizabeth, died of a drug overdose. In 1980 her only child, Richard, accidentally shot himself to death. In 1981 her 18-year marriage to Grant Tinker, who created MTM Enterprises and is now chairman of NBC, ended in divorce.

Grace: In 1984 Mary checked into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., to seek treatment for a drinking problem complicated by diabetes. But Moore has long been aware that what set her apart in the public eye was her image of grace under stress. By confessing her drinking problem, she told Maclean’s, “I am glad I was able to be a kind of role model for other women who identified with my ladylike qualities, who were then able to say, ‘Well, if Mary can admit she had a problem with alcohol, then maybe I can too.’ ”

Stable: Now 48, Moore has found some equilibrium. She has conquered alcohol. Her third marriage, to 32-year-old New York City cardiologist Robert Levine, appears stable. Her new series is satisfying her insatiable desire to work—already wealthy, she does not need the money. And she is starring in a film, Just Between Friends, scheduled for release in March. She says that she has begun to overcome a chronic sense of insecurity: “I always felt that I didn’t measure up, both in my personal and professional life,” said Moore. “But now I work for the love of what I am doing. I work for the moment.”

Her attitude may provide some necessary solace after the reception that her new series received during its first month. Despite favourable reviews, recent ratings show that it ranks 44th, attracting only a 24-per-cent share of the viewing audience. That is disappointing: CBS executives had expected that Mary would strengthen the network’s ratings, while the CBC paid an undisclosed but large amount for Canadian rights to broadcast Mary.

But Moore’s reputation as a class act is strong enough to inspire confidence in network executives who are usually unnerved by poor ratings. Harvey Shephard, senior vice-president, programs, of CBS, said that the show may be too adult for its early time slot (8 p.m. on CBS and 7:30 p.m. on the CBC). Younger viewers addicted to the broader family entertainment of The Bill Cosby Show and Family Ties may have trouble appreciating it. Said Shephard: “If it doesn’t work, we will just move it to another time slot.” In any case, The Mary Tyler Moore Show gained popularity after its first year.

Sitting on a blue sofa in her dressing room trailer—the same trailer on the same Studio City soundstage that she used for her old series—Moore appeared sprig-thin in a silver-spangled sweatshirt with padded shoulders, silver running shoes and stovepipe blue jeans. Around her neck hung a gold chain supporting a bronze medallion of Alexander the Great encircled with diamonds and rubies, a wedding gift from her husband. Methodically chewing Nicorette nicotine gum, she explained that she had given up cigarettes last August after smoking 2-1/2 packs a day. “I never smoked in public,” she said. “And I always made sure no pictures were taken of me smoking. I thought I could lead youngsters astray.”

In a television era that features the chain-smoking glamor of Miami Vice’s Don Johnson, Moore takes unusual care to project wholesome values. But at the same time, despite the deepening lines around her legendary smile, she tries to maintain her image as the sexy, smart career girl—a self-possessed object of desire who resists being made a mere object. Her friend and former costar, Valerie Harper (Rhoda), has described the old Mary Richards character as “wholesome but not too wholesome. She likes a great big glass of cold milk to wash down her birth control pill.” In her new show, Mary Brenner is a divorcée who displays more confidence than her old character and a more caustic wit. “But she still retains the old vulnerability,” said Moore, “because, well, I have it personally. She reflects me, as did all the characters I played on series television. In real life, most of the actors in situation comedies are much like the characters they play.”

Roles: Moore decided to return to television comedy after starring in a TV movie, Finnegan Begin Again, in 1984—her first comedy since leaving The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She said that the experience made her “realize how very much I missed it and how good at it I am.” As well, there were not enough film roles to keep her busy. She approached Arthur Price, the president of MTM Enterprises, who hired writers David Isaacs and Ken Levine (M*A*S*H, Cheers) to create and produce a new series. “She had no concept in mind,” said Levine. “But we all agreed that the show should reflect the 1980s—that its tone should be a little more cynical than the old show.”

In fact, Moore’s only request was that she not portray a mother. “I thought there were enough television shows,” she said, “where women were grappling with the problem of raising children.” The writers toyed with various roles—ranging from Mary managing a dinner theatre to Mary working as a congressman’s aide—before settling on a situation almost identical to the unrevised script proposal for the old Mary Tyler Moore Show: Mary as a divorced newspaperwoman. But they introduced an element of sexual tension more suitable to a jaded era: in place of the fatherly Lou Grant, the new Mary’s boss, Eagle editor DeMarco, serves as both a comic antagonist and a leading man.

After a difficult search, the producers cast James Farentino in the editor’s role. Said Moore: “We have no idea when that first tentative screen kiss will take place, if it ever does, but that’s our aim right now.” Isaacs and Levine said that they hope to stretch the unconsummated flirtation over three or four years. A comedy series with a romantic undercurrent between two middle-aged characters is unusual, added Moore. “But in real life,” she laughed, “I happen to know one or two people in their mid-40s who are still sexually very much alive.”

Strong-jawed Farentino was serving as the leading man for Joan Collins in the mini-series Sins when he auditioned for the Mary role. He says he senses “a chemistry that you cannot explain” between himself and Moore. For one thing, both performers have brushed with alcoholism amid Hollywood’s stresses. Moore said that her former habit of drinking a couple of martinis before dinner “helped me to release a lot of the control I tend to exert in my daily life.” Farentino began drinking heavily two years ago, while starring in Blue Thunder, a short-lived ABC action series about a helicopter pilot. “The show was terrible,” he said. “I would have a fifth of booze in the studio cockpit with me just to get through it.” In 1984 he checked into the Betty Ford Center, the same celebrity-blessed haven that Moore had left the previous month.

Brisk: On the MTM sound stage, where the show is filmed three Fridays a month before a live audience, the atmosphere is brisk but convivial. Moore, her 120-lb., five-foot, seven-inch figure clad in a pink workout suit, profits from lulls in rehearsal by doing stretches and knee bends. Ballet bars are set up in a corner, where she takes dance classes with other MTM employees at lunch hour. From early childhood, her first love was ballet. Even now she says, “If I had the ability to choose, I would be a ballet dancer, live in a company, travel and have no more responsibility than sewing the ribbons on my point shoes.”

Moore was born on Dec. 29, 1937, in Brooklyn. She began to pursue her performing career at the age of 9, when she first studied ballet. Her middle-class parents, George and Marjorie Moore, encouraged her show-business aspirations; in fact, her father had some of his own. An auditor for the Consolidated Edison utility until 1946, he quit his job and moved to Los Angeles after his brother-in-law had invited him to work as a production assistant on the Abbott and Costello radio show. But the show died after 39 weeks, and George Moore, ill-suited for the rigors of Hollywood, found a job with Southern California Gas Company, where he remained for 37 years.

Sin: His daughter attended a Roman Catholic school in California. Despite her staunch Catholic upbringing, she recalled, “I was told that prolonged kissing was a mortal sin, but I knew that I liked it and I was probably going to do it again.” One kiss led to another and at 17 she married her next-door neighbor, Richard Meeker, a 27-year-old public relations executive. Her parents tried to stop the marriage, but when the couple threatened to elope to Las Vegas they finally agreed to a church wedding. Recalled her father: “She got married primarily so she could stay out later at night.” Two months later she got pregnant—about the same time that she landed her first professional role, playing Happy Hotpoint, a pixie sheathed in a leotard who danced over stoves in TV appliance commercials. She earned a $10,000 annual salary, an enormous sum for a teenager in 1955, but she had to give up the role when pregnancy began expanding the leotard.

After working as a TV chorus dancer for such performers as Dean Martin and Jimmy Durante, Moore concocted a fake theatrical resumé and switched to acting. Her first brief series role was in 1957 on Richard Diamond, Private Eye, where she played Diamond’s sultry-voiced answering-service girl, but the camera showed only her legs and hands. Later, guest spots led to an audition for the Danny Thomas series, Make Room for Daddy. Thomas, who called her “the girl with no nose, three names and a big smile,” decided that she was not right to play his daughter. But the next year, when he and Carl Reiner were preparing The Dick Van Dyke Show, he cast her as the scatterbrained Laura Petrie. Playing housewife and straight man to Van Dyke’s manic Rob Petrie, Moore displayed a keen sense of comic timing that helped make the show a hit.

Partner: With success came divorce—and a new marriage to NBC executive Grant Tinker in 1963. In Tinker, she acquired both a husband and a future business partner. The series was cancelled in 1966 when Van Dyke moved into film work. Moore followed his lead, making Thoroughly Modern Millie with Julie Andrews and Change of Habit with Elvis Presley. Then, in 1969 CBS reunited Moore and Van Dyke in a TV special. It was so popular that all three U.S. networks offered her a series. On Tinker’s advice, Moore accepted the CBS proposal, which allowed the pair to create an independent company to produce the show. Tinker christened it MTM Enterprises, said Moore, “in much the same way as you name a boat after your wife.”

At MTM, Tinker set up a creative team that made the The Mary Tyler Moore Show part of a groundbreaking trend to social relevance in television. To write the series, he hired James Brooks and Allan Burns, veterans of Room 222, a comedy series about a black teacher in an integrated high school. But network executives were aghast when Brooks and Burns told them they wanted Moore to play a divorcée. Declared CBS’s Marc Golden: “There are four things America cannot stand: Jews, men with moustaches, New Yorkers and divorced women.”

Fear: According to Burns, the CBS men feared that viewers would think Mary Richards had divorced Dick Van Dyke. TV in the 1960s, Burns added, portrayed single women as either virgins or widows—“the possibility of divorce was not even considered.” Reluctantly, the writers made Mary a single woman who had been living with a man. Said Burns: “We never could get over the fact that, in their byzantine thinking, they thought it was preferable for her to have lived with someone than to have been divorced.”

Despite the compromises, the show succeeded in making an independent career woman a popular heroine. And as MTM grew, it mirrored the feminism of the times. And it hired an unusually high number of women writers. “There were not a lot of women comedy writers around,” said Burns, “but at one point more than half our shows were written by women.”

Kill: By the late 1970s television’s infatuation with social issues had burned itself out. Although The Mary Tyler Moore Show was still popular, its ratings were starting to slip; after deciding to kill it in 1977 MTM tried to adapt Moore to a more frivolous era by creating a weekly hour-long variety show for her titled Mary, which CBS cancelled after three weeks. A second variety series in 1979 also failed.

But her most severe trauma was personal rather than professional—the 1980 death of her 22-year-old son, Richard, who accidentally shot himself while playing with a gun. There was a cruel resonance to the event, because she had just finished her first serious film role in Ordinary People as the brittle, repressed mother of a suicidal boy. At the time, she told an interviewer, “As a mother, there was a part of me that was very much like Beth of Ordinary People, to the detriment of my relationship with my son.” But with the help of friends and psychotherapy, she weathered the tragedy. “It helped reinforce what we instinctively know,” she told Maclean's, “that there is no real permanence in our lives.”

Ordinary People revealed a darker side to Moore, one that first surfaced in a 1978 TV movie, First, You Cry, in which she gave a critically acclaimed performance as a woman with breast cancer. Moore plays another serious role in her latest film, Just Between Friends, directed by Allan Burns. Completed last month, the new movie is the story of a woman who learns, after her husband dies, that her best friend is pregnant with his child. “I wince every time I tell that plot,” said Moore. “It sounds like real soap opera, but it isn’t. It is essentially the story of friendship between two women.” Like Ordinary People, the script has personal significance for Moore. Indeed, some of its dialogue emerged from Moore’s improvising on the emotions she felt after her 1981 breakup with Tinker.

In 1983 Moore married Robert Levine, who, according to her friends, is the first husband who has not dominated her. Working in separate spheres, they maintain their marriage by commuting. When she filmed a television movie, Heartsounds, in Toronto in 1984, he visited on weekends. Now, while shooting Mary, she spends every third week at home in New York, where they live with a prize golden retriever named Dash. They share simple pleasures, far removed from Hollywood’s glitter.

Moore’s new poise is reflected in her cooler, more sardonic television character. “She never quite wins,” explains Moore, “and when she doesn’t succeed, she just kind of grins and thinks to herself, ‘All right, I lost this round but maybe I’ll get the next,’ whereas Mary Richards would have been devastated.” Meanwhile, Moore waits patiently for the ratings to show that an audience exists for her new image. In fact, she shows signs of being extremely sensitive about her physical appearance. On the new show, costumes cover her neck with high collars, and she carefully scrutinizes all her publicity photographs—reserving the right to have them retouched.

Cult: Syndicated reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show have turned her former character into an ever-youthful cult figure for millions of viewers, including many who never watched the show during its first run. Moore does not like watching the reruns, but she says that she enjoys the popularity they bring. “When I walk in New York,” she says, “invariably I hear a cab driver or truck driver yell out the window: ‘Hey Mare, great to see ya. Lookin’ good, kid.’ That’s syndication speaking out and keeping me alive.”

Television, as Esquire magazine’s Richard Levine once wrote, dissolves both past and future into the “perpetual present.” In trying to convince viewers to accept the reality of her matured character, Mary Tyler Moore’s greatest competition may be her own image beaming up from a golden age for situation comedy. But her greatest asset remains ageless—her ability, after surviving so much adversity, to flash that celebrated smile.