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Guild honors Mary Tyler Moore

She started her TV career as a teenager playing Happy Hotpoint the Elf during appliance commercials on "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet" before being "promoted" to playing David Janssen's sultry receptionist using only her shapely legs and voice in "Richard Diamond, Private Detective."

Not, perhaps, anything that screamed "superstar in the making," but seven Emmys, a Tony Award and an Academy Award nomination later -- not to mention a titular CBS sitcom regarded as one of the best comedy series ever made -- Mary Tyler Moore accepts the Life Achievement Award from her peers during the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, airing on TNT and TBS tonight.

The icing on the cake for many fans will be watching Moore accept the award from someone who played a pivotal role in her career: Dick Van Dyke, with whom she starred in the CBS sitcom "The Dick Van Dyke Show" from 1961 to 1966.

"Along with ["Dick Van Dyke Show" creator] Carl Reiner, I think Dick is the most appropriate one [to present this]," Moore says. "Dick's contribution was so enormous from the very start. He made me feel that we had been married for a couple of years, anyway, and it was quite an exceptional feeling."

The actress, who was in her early 20s when she got the job, says her castmates, who included veterans Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam, never seemed to treat her as less than a peer, but then, she was mostly focused on watching and learning.

"It was nonverbalizable, what I learned on that show, it was so rich," Moore says.

"She became the comedy partner of my life," Van Dyke says. "My God, what a team we were!"

A team, as it turns out, that viewers would continue to associate with each other (the pair also later appeared together in a 1969 music special and a 2003 adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Gin Game"), especially when CBS looked at Moore's next project, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," in which Moore's character, Mary Richards, originally was conceived as a divorcee.

"CBS was worried that the audience would naturally visualize Rob and Laura Petrie, and no woman in her right mind could ever divorce Rob Petrie," Moore says, laughing.

Of course, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which ran on CBS from 1970 to 1977, became something of a sitcom touchstone, assembling a matchless cast that included future Emmy winners Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Ed Asner and Betty White, among others. Moore says the cast and creative team were confident they were doing good work but never thought in terms of making a masterpiece.

"And maybe that was why we were able to run as long as we did, because we never were stepping off the plate and observing what we were doing," Moore says. "We were just doing it. It made us feel good, and when you feel good you've got to be doing something good."

Since "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" ended its run, Moore hasn't found a weekly comedy series that fit with her strengths, but she entered a new phase of her career in the late 1970s, when Robert Redford cast her against type as Beth Jarrett in his Oscar-winning movie "Ordinary People."

The role called for America's sweetheart to play an upper-class mother whose grief over the drowning death of one son made her distance herself from the boy's surviving sibling. Moore gave a shattering performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination as best actress.

"[Robert and I] lived on the same beach in Malibu, but we frequently would meet each other walking in different directions and just nod to each other as we passed," Moore says. "He told me later that as he passed me and looked at me, he often wondered what the dark side of Mary Tyler Moore might be. That's why he just couldn't get me out of his mind. He just thought I was the one to play this."