In 2012, Mary Tyler Moore won the Screen Actor's Guild lifetime achievement award. The SAG Awards this weekend give us reason to contemplate interesting questions about one of the most beloved of American lives.
For instance, would SAG have given her its lifetime prize if her entire achievement had ended when "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" did? What if her achievement had been restricted, mostly, to prime time primacy while playing Dick Van Dyke's wife on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and the most influential single woman in TV history on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show?"
"Probably," is the sad answer. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" wasn't just a TV show that modeled the independent lives of young women; it was a factory for turning out beloved actors -- Betty White, Cloris Leachman, Valerie Harper, Ted Knight, John Amos. Throw in Ed Asner as Lou Grant growling and snarling himself into the image of bulldog masculine authority and you've got a sitcom actress who turned her own stardom into something vastly more.
That's what happens when a TV show comes from your own company, run by her husband at the time, Grant Tinker, one of the handful of most important executives in the history of television. Tinker's death preceded hers by two months.
MTM was a fountain of TV excellence in its time : the seminal "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere" but also "The Bob Newhart Show," "Newhart," "Phyllis," "Lou Grant," "The Betty White Show," "The White Shadow," "WKRP in Cincinnatti," "Paris," "Remington Steele" etc.
But it was so much more. MTM became the template for the entire NBC network when Tinker went on to become the network president. And NBC transformed prime time TV from endless dumbing down to selective smartening up. It was Tinker, with his wife's support, who showed every subsequent TV executive how crucial it was to serve viewers who cared about what they watched rather than those who simply aimlessly "watched television"-- whatever was on.
When Marlo Thomas leaves us all, don't expect a tenth as many obituary tributes for her show "That Girl," even though her portrayal of a single woman on her own preceded Moore's by four years. Her show was often as much about boyfriend and father as it was about her.
I was lucky enough to be the News Daily TV columnist in the mid-'70's when "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was at the zenith of American affections as well as her life's achievement. On bi-annual jaunts to the West Coast to sample network offerings and interview "stars," I encountered her far more closely than I could ever have expected to.
Once I was at a press lunch table with her and Tinker and a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. At that stage, I had never before encountered a woman of such beauty and renown. My instant reaction to encountering such fame and beauty was, unexpectedly, not delight but discomfort. My reflex action wasn't to move toward her but to turn and move away -- to leave the goddess alone atop Olympus. I have since spent decades in rooms where the famous and beautiful mingle with working stiffs. I've discovered that my initial reaction is, in fact, a common one. Shameless fans have no trouble at all rushing the famous and the beautiful. The first instinct of professionals, whether journalists or waiters or hotel doormen, is often to keep a respectful distance.
If you watched the mass of tributes to Mary Tyler Moore that appeared everywhere after her death was announced on Wednesday, you saw that what I originally thought was my weird and inexplicable first reaction to her wasn't that weird at all. On TV's infotainment shows, she was shown at a final press conference with some of the great female cast of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" -- Betty White, Cloris Leachman, Valerie Harper. What she said in the clip was, between the lines, terribly sad. Why is it, she wanted to know, that people who once worked together so much and loved each other got together so seldom?
It was predictable that when Mary Tyler Moore died at 80, everyone wanted to remember her as Laura Petrie and Mary Richards.
There was far too much properly-raised Mary Richards in Mary Tyler Moore to say so but I think that by the end she was more than a little sick of Laura Petrie and Mary Richards.
I'm sure she had enormous regard for all those very real women whose lives were so deeply affected by Richards and the doings at WJM in Minneapolis. (Oprah Winfrey, most famously.) But I think she was happy to rebel against "Oh, Rob!" Laura Petrie and even Mary Richards whenever she could.
Especially in movies.
The satisfaction of doing "Ordinary People" for Robert Redford was probably very deep indeed under difficult circumstances. Redford has always maintained that it was his passing view of a serious Moore passing by his Malibu Beach House that inspired him to cast her as the hard, embittered mother in "Ordinary People." That's all well and good but I'm sure he knew that she was estranged from her only son, who, in fact, died in October 1980 in an accident with a sawed-off shotgun. There was more than a little darkness in the woman who turned the world on with her smile.
She should have won the Oscar for doing it. Instead, they gave it to Sissy Spacek for "Coal Miner's Daughter," a nice, showy piece of Oscar business-as-usual.
Long before David O. Russell became the tempestuous A-list director of "Joy," "American Hustle," "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook," Moore crudely flashed her black bra at her family in Russell's second feature "Flirting With Disaster." As in-your-face shocks go by actresses beloved for their floral reputations, it wasn't quite on the level of Julie Andrews going topless in her husband Blake Edwards' movie "S.O.B." but it's not far from it.
She was diagnosed with diabetes during the making of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." In later years, her struggles with the disease increased along with her public advocacy for its sufferers. In later years, she also admitted earlier struggles with alcoholism.
In her final decades, it's unlikely that she was ever physically well enough to maintain the near-miraculous work schedule of her old friend Betty White.
It hasn't been hard to imagine her hearing, yet again, about how wonderful she was as Laura Petrie and Mary Richards and feeling as if she had been serving a life sentence, as performers sometimes do, in "icon" prison.
She's gone now. She was, in private, very different from what people want to think she was.
Her influence on TV and American womanhood was huge -- even though the women she played on TV weren't.
The real woman -- the one we never knew -- was as huge as her influence, even if she was completely unknowable.