The role of the perky, somewhat excitable housewife Laura Petrie on the much-loved The Dick Van Dyke Show would have been enough to guarantee Mary Tyler Moore a lifetime of goodwill and appreciation from television fans. But Moore went on to be a guiding force behind one of the most influential and admired programs of its era, the self-named The Mary Tyler Moore Show (or simply Mary Tyler Moore as its opening credits read). With her then-husband, Grant Tinker, Moore formed MTM Enterprises, which not only produced her own program, but also generated some of television’s major series during the next two decades. In addition to her achievements behind the scenes, Moore’s warm and witty portrayal of the single, working woman Mary Richards would top her Laura Petrie character and bring her icon status. Richards served as a role model for women making small but important strides toward equality. “Mary Richards, when she went to work at that station,” Moore would explain, “was breaking new ground for women by going in and bringing up to her boss the fact that the man who had the job before her was making more money and why was that?”
Originally, Moore’s aspiration was to be a dancer. Born in Brooklyn in 1937, her family ended up in the Los Angeles area in the midforties, where Moore studied dancing throughout her school years. In 1955, shortly after high school graduation, she landed a job appearing as a dancing fairy, “Happy Hotpoint,” in a series of ads for Hotpoint appliances that ran on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. Following a break to marry and have a child, Moore landed her first series role on Richard Diamond, Private Detective, albeit in a gimmick part without billing. She portrayed the sultry-voiced receptionist, “Sam,” whose full face was never seen on camera. Unhappy with what she considered a dead-end part, she quit the series. But because of this exposure, Moore started getting acting offers and made appearances on such series as 77 Sunset Strip, Johnny Staccato, Hawaiian Eye, Bachelor Father, and Wanted: Dead or Alive.
An audition for The Danny Thomas Show did not result in a role, but it made her talents evident to Thomas, who suggested her to Carl Reiner when he began casting his new situation comedy in which Dick Van Dyke would star. Initially written as just another patient, loyal wife, Reiner soon realized that Moore was simply too good at playing comedy to take a backseat to Van Dyke and second bananas Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam. He revised the role and made her as appealing and funny as the others. “My deal was to find the truth in everything,” Moore would later explain. “And Carl actually says that that was good, that I forced him into making a truer line between reality and the laugh.” After a shaky first year, the popularity of The Dick Van Dyke Show began to climb, landing it in the top ten for its following season. Moore ended up with her first Emmy nomination in 1963, the same year the series won as Outstanding Humor Program. The following year, Moore won the trophy as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Series and then again in 1966, when the category was referred to as Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series. Three years after the show ended its run, Moore reunited with Van Dyke for the well-received 1969 CBS special Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman that had executives at the network wondering if perhaps there was a future for Moore carrying a series of her own.
CBS offered Moore a thirteen-episode commitment for a situation comedy, a deal that Moore accepted, with the understanding that she and her husband, 20th Century-Fox executive Grant Tinker, would have control over the content of the series and could select the creative talents needed to put it together. This opportunity gave Moore and Tinker a chance to set up their own production company, MTM Enterprises, using Moore’s initials and a purring kitten as their logo, a direct spoof of the famous roaring MGM lion. To produce and develop the series, MTM turned to writers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns. Moore was anxious to do something different from the average sitcom and liked the idea of playing a single woman in search of a career and a new start in life. Although Mary Richards appeared nervously uncertain at times, Brooks and Burns made sure to develop her into a resilient, reasonable, intelligent, enormously positive force in the newsroom in which she worked. According to Tinker, “Mary had some wonderful abilities to mix that spunk with uncertainty. That was the Everywoman about Mary Richards.”
Surrounding her were a collection of quirky, neurotic coworkers. Once again Moore faced the risk of being overshadowed by the colorful players around her, but instead showed new levels of comic timing. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was hailed for the fresh feel it brought to the situation comedy genre, with its very snappy, literate dialogue, contemporary, whip-smart line deliveries, and sophisticated tone. Scripts were developed from the idiosyncrasies of its regular characters and found humor in putting a slightly outrageous spin on situations that audiences could relate to. The show won both audience and critical approval and was hailed as one of the bright spots of the 1970–71 television season, winning its Saturday night timeslot in the Nielsen ratings and earning Emmy nominations as both Outstanding New Series and Oustanding Comedy Series, as well as for Moore and other cast members. It won four awards for the performances of Edward Asner and Valerie Harper and in the directing and writing categories. For seven seasons The Mary Tyler Moore Show ranked as one of the crowning achievements of the medium, setting high standards in writing and acting. Moore could feel the sense of achievement from the start “ … I think when the audience saw it for the first time and the cameras were rolling and it got the wonderful response it did that … I knew it was indeed special.” Moore eventually brought home four Emmys for her work on the series, while the show itself was named Outstanding Comedy Series three years in a row (1975–77) and racked up a total of twenty-nine wins. Moore even stepped behind the cameras one time, to direct the 1974 episode “A Boy’s Best Friend.”
In addition to Moore’s show, MTM Enterprises also produced and created other series, starting with The Bob Newhart Show, which had an equally successful run, most of the time directly following Mary Tyler Moore in the Saturday CBS lineup. Both Valerie Harper (Rhoda) and Cloris Leachman’s (Phyllis) characters had spin-offs developed for them by MTM during the run of Mary Tyler Moore, and Edward Asner took the unusual step of continuing his Lou Grant character in a dramatic vein. Lou Grant premiered in the fall of 1977 a few weeks after the Mary Tyler Moore series finale. MTM Enterprises was also responsible for such shows as The White Shadow (1978–81), WKRP in Cincinnati (1978–82), Hill Street Blues (1981–87), St. Elsewhere (1982–88), and Remington Steele (1982–87). There were also MTM ventures into film with A Little Sex (1982) and Just Between Friends (1986), in which Moore starred, as well as New York theatre, the company being responsible for the 1986 Tony Award–winning revival of Joe Egg. Tinker and Moore divorced in 1981, and the company was sold in 1990 and officially dissolved in 1997.
In 1980 Moore won acclaim for her dramatic performances both on stage and screen, earning a special Tony Award for Broadway’s Whose Life Is It Anyway? and an Oscar nomination for the film Ordinary People. She has also received Emmy nominations for her work in the television movies First, You Cry (1978) and Heartsounds (1984) and for the miniseries Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988), in which she portrayed the President’s troubled wife. She won an Emmy Award again in 1993 for her performance as real-life black marketer Georgia Tann in the Lifetime movie Stolen Babies.
Moore was the executive producer and star of a television reunion movie for herself and Valerie Harper, Mary and Rhoda, in 2000, and she reunited with Van Dyke for a production of The Gin Game, on which she also served as executive producer. Moore was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame in 1986. She currently serves as the chairperson of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International.