When I heard that TV legend Mary Tyler Moore had passed away at 80, I felt great sadness because I had so enjoyed her work, and as a kid I fell in love with her as many of her fans and TV viewers did as well. All of us certainly could answer the question posed in the song from the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show – “Who can turn the world on with her smile?” – Mary!!!
I first encountered her on The Dick Van Dyke Show, playing the mother to a child a bit older than I was at the time. What I watched were called “reruns” because the sitcom had gone off the air as a first-run series years before, and my mother would have it on during the day as she worked around the house and I was playing with my toys.
What I liked about Mary’s depiction of Laura Petrie was that she wasn’t the typical mother from other show’s reruns like The Donna Reed Show (Donna Reed) or Leave It To Beaver (Barbara Billingsly) because gone were the strings of pearls and fancy dresses while doing housework. Like my mother she wore normal clothing like pants, would cry over things, and also could get angry. She seemed like a real mom to me, but also was incredibly funny and beautiful too.
When something would go wrong she would look at her husband (played by the incredible Dick Van Dyke) and moan, “Oh, Robbbbb!” and that was an indelible TV treasure as memorable as Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy saying, “Eeewww!” or Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden's “I’ve got a BIG mouth” on The Honeymooners.
When I watched Mary playing Laura years later as an adult, I realized other things about her portrayal. Laura was no pushover for Rob or anyone else for that matter. She had her own mind, wore those pants (which I now realized were sexy capris), and made mistakes that sometimes were not easily solved (like when she reveals the secret that Rob’s boss wears a toupee).
Mary made some films during the period between the end of The Dick Van Dyke Show and the start of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and later would display her acting skills in more films like Ordinary People, which showed her impressive range and that she was able to handle far more complex and difficult roles, even one like this cruel mother of a son whose greatest crime was surviving the death of his brother.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered in 1970, and those of us who loved Mary as Laura fell in love all over again with Mary Richards. This character had some of Laura’s initiative and strength, but she was also a single woman and made no apologies – sort of the natural evolution of what would have happened to Laura if she had never met and married Rob Petrie.
In many ways her Mary played it straight while the looney characters all around her got many of the laughs, but her reactions and ability to break into tears (also a Laura Petrie staple) endeared her to the fans again. She was a single woman who had a career (surrounded by men in her office and did the same work they did), dated many men (with the hint that these relationships were much more than platonic), and had the integrity of living her life the way she chose to do. Mary Richards’s character was a turning point in TV history and set the tone for so many other female TV characters to follow.
Mary could get laughs too, and as I have seen on the Internet these last few days, almost everyone remembers the scene at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown as their favorite from the series. Here Mary displays her acting chops as she attempts to be the only one to be respectful, but then as the deadpan reverend goes on and on she cannot help but start laughing, and then later breaks into tears. The full range of emotions she explores in the scene are noteworthy, and it is almost impossible not to laugh while watching it.
To hear of Mary's loss is painful for so many of us because she played two indelible TV characters – how many actors or actresses can even claim to have played one – that have remained in our hearts all these years. While her work will live on, we all mourn her loss as we turn yet another page in our lives.
I like to think of Mary Tyler Moore now as the girl in the opening credit sequence of her show walking through the snowy park and turning it green, the one whose megawatt smile did indeed turn the world on. Somewhere she is throwing her hat up in the air and love is all around her. Rest in peace, Mary Tyler Moore.