Friday, January 27, 2017

Mary Tyler Moore, December 29, 1936-January 25, 2017

"Who can turn the world on with her smile . . .?"

For seven seasons, between 1970 and 1977, millions of Americans tuned into CBS on Saturdays at 9 p.m. to learn the answer to that question.

Her name was Mary Tyler Moore, and when she died on Wednesday, she was rightfully hailed as "iconic".

My generation grew up knowing her as Mary Richards, single, professional newswoman, who worked at the fictional WJM-TV in Minneapolis.  We saw her spar with her boss, Lou Grant, ("I hate spunk!") and groan at the antics of Ted Baxter.  When her series ended in 1977, Mary's character said, as one of her last lines, "Thank you for being my family."  Whether that was written in the script, or she ad-libbed it, I have no doubt that she meant it--not only speaking as her character to her fellow characters, but speaking as an actress to her fellow thespians.

My parents' generation knew her as Laura Petrie from The Dick Van Dyke Show, with her signature catchphrase, "Oh, Rob!"  Last night, while watching a CBS special about Mary Tyler Moore, it was mentioned that Mary's Capri pants were groundbreaking--the network complained, "She should be in a skirt!"

I didn't realize that Mary Tyler Moore played a groundbreaking feminist who showed women that it was okay to not have a date on Saturday nights, because they could stay home and watch Mary.  No, it was just a fun show for me to watch, a fun show with a catchy title theme that you could sing along to.  (I even played the tambourine along with it one time, over my sister's protests!)

I do remember one show where Mary and her date came back to the apartment and the date started taking off his shirt.  I was young, naive, and uneducated in certain areas, and I didn't understand why he was taking his shirt off, nor did I understand why Mary got so upset with him.  I do remember her doing the math and realizing she'd been on, "2000 dates!"

When Mary Tyler Moore played Betty Rollin in "First, You Cry", a TV movie based on Rollin's memoir of her struggle with breast cancer, a reviewer noted that one thing that MTM could do was act, and that she shouldn't be ashamed of it.  I've remembered that review off and on.  MTM is underrated as a serious actress.  She, along with Carol Burnett, is one of a rare handful of actors and actresses who can do comedy and drama equally well.  In 1981, I sat in the Moore Auditorium at Florida State University and watched Ordinary People, the movie that earned MTM an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.  Several years later, she played opposite James Garner in Heartsounds, the story of a couple's struggle after the husband suffered two severe heart attacks.

Her real-life struggles also made news.  She dealt with alcoholism.  She was married three times and divorced twice.  Her only child accidentally shot and killed himself in 1980.  She also had Type 1 diabetes, and when testifying before a Congressional committee, she described the "tyranny" that diabetes wracked on her every day of her life.

In later years, the diabetes attacked her eyes and kidneys.  In a 2014 episode of Hot In Cleveland, the five women who'd participated in the Mary Tyler Moore show -- Betty White, Cloris Leachman, Valerie Harper, Georgia Engle, and Mary herself -- came together for a reunion show.

In the scene, the first four women walked into a restaurant where another woman held a menu in front of her face.  When the menu dropped, revealing Mary Tyler Moore's face, the crowd roared, and Betty commented, "Well, looks like she made it after all!"

By that time, Mary was nearly blind.

She died with her husband, Richard Levine, at her side.

In the first season of the Mary Tyler Moore show, the question the theme song asked was not the famous, "Who can turn the world on with her smile?" Rather, it was, "How will you make it on your own?"  The lyrics addressed the premise of the series, which was that of a woman who'd just ended a relationship and was moving to the big city to start over.  The song ended with, "You might just make it after all."

When the series was picked up for a second season, the network called the songwriter, Sonny Curtis, and told him, we need new lyrics!

He focused on the personality of Mary Richards -- the woman who could turn the world on with her smile, who could take a nothing date and make it seem worthwhile -- and ended with the optimistic declaration, "You're gonna make it after all!"

She did make it after all.  She turned the world on with her smile.  We are richer for having known that smile, and poorer now that it is gone.

Just my .04, adjusted for inflation.

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