Remembering Mary Tyler Moore, A Cultural Icon for Generations

She wasn’t just a TV star; Mary Tyler Moore helped change our lives.
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She wasn’t just a TV star; Mary Tyler Moore helped change our lives.
Mary Tyler Moore in 2002

Mary Tyler Moore, photographed in 2002, is remembered not only as an on-screen idol, but a behind-the-scenes powerhouse.

On January 25, 2017, the pop culture world lost one of its most beloved icons, Mary Tyler Moore. A TV staple of the 1960s and 70s, she changed the television landscape forever. Here's a look at what made Mary Tyler Moore such a cultural icon and an inspiration for so many.

HER TV SITCOM ROLES WERE BOTH GROUNDBREAKING AND CHARMING 

Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show was a new kind of housewife. Laura was pretty, yes, and stayed home with son Richie, but she broke the mold when it came to TV moms. Moore had perfect comic timing, making Laura Petrie funny without having the comedy come from berating or mocking her TV husband. Because of her background in musicals, Moore and co-star Dick Van Dyke held the floor together, performing at the Petries' parties side by side.

Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke

Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke as Laura and Rob Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1961.

Four years later, Moore was back on a sitcom, this time with her own name in the title. Originally supposed to be divorced, her character, Mary Richards, moved to Minneapolis on the heels of a break-up to start a new life. She was a single woman who spent most of her time at work and the rest with her friends, and while she dated throughout the series, she wasn't fixated on ending her single status and did not end up married at the end of the show's run.  

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the result of perfect chemistry: brilliant writers, great directors, and a perfect cast created a show that influenced generations of TV viewers, and women n in particular.

Tina Fey, creator and star of 30 Rock, has repeatedly cited The Mary Tyler Moore Show as an inspiration for her character, Liz Lemon, as well as the series itself, which won 16 Emmys during its seven-season run. She also modeled her next co-creation, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, after the MTM template of a girl hitting the big city, embracing a new life. 

Friends co-creator David Crane used the series finale as the inspiration for his own, telling The San Francisco Chronicle that Mary Tyler Moore was the “gold standard.” 

Mary Richards also inspired many journalists to go into the field. Kelly McBride, journalist, and media ethics expert, told The Washington Post, “I had lots of working women role models in my life, but they were nurses, hairdressers and department store saleswomen. But when I saw Mary Tyler Moore I saw someone who had a job that didn’t require you to have it all figured out. Instead, the job was actually figuring things out. . .I was confident I could always think my way out of a problem.” 

And no less than former First Lady Michelle Obama has told Variety how it was a major influence on her. "She was one of the few single working women depicted on television at the time. She wasn’t married. She wasn’t looking to get married. At no point did the series end in a happy ending with her finding a husband — which seemed to be the course you had to take as a woman. But she sort of bucked that. She worked in a newsroom, she had a tough boss, and she stood up to him. She had close friends, never bemoaning the fact that she was a single. She was very proud and comfortable in that role. . .I was probably 10 or 11 when I saw that, and sort of started thinking, ‘You know what? Marriage is an option. Having a family is an option. And going to school and getting your education and building your career is another really viable option that can lead to happiness and fulfillment." 

SHE MADE FASHION GLAMOROUS AND ATTAINABLE AT THE SAME TIME

The first splash Moore made in the fashion world was on The Dick Van Dyke Show, where Laura wore those famous capris pants. “I had Laura wear pants, because I said, ‘Women don't wear full-skirted dresses to vacuum in,” she told TV Guide in 2004. 

The network was worried that housewives wouldn't like how good Moore looked in those pants, and tried to initiate a one-scene-in-pants-per-episode rule, which didn't last for more than a few episodes, despite sponsors' worries that they were “cupping under.” But Moore wanted to dress the way she did in real life, and not have her character flit around in a skirt and high heels while she did the housework. 

On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she cemented her place in TV fashion history. A working woman, she wore an assortment of professional but still feminine clothes, never trying to emulate the look of men in the workplace, and she also did something almost unheard of for a TV character: she wore the same clothes more than once. Not only that, she mixed and matched. Costume designer Leslie Hall made an innovative deal with fashion house Evan-Picone, known for ready-to-wear, career-oriented separates, and Mary Richards wore them from one season to the next. Studio audiences would ask questions about the clothes so frequently during warm-up time that Hall would often come out and answer them herself. 

Women watched the show and saw Mary Richards as someone they wanted to be, who dressed the way a woman might actually choose to, and not the way male network executives would. 

Mary Tyler Moore

Mary Tyler Moore, as Mary Richards, opens a door and looks at the set of 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' during the final episode on March 19, 1977.

MARY RICHARDS WAS THE MOST PROGRESSIVE TV CHARACTER OF HER TIME

In 1970, a few days before the premiere of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the New York Times ran a spread about new fall shows. The headline read “Out of the Kitchen, Ladies”—a pretty clear indication of what most women's roles on TV had been up to then. 

While Moore lamented the fact that Mary Richards being divorced was too shocking for the networks, she was still the most, to use a word of the times, “liberated” woman on TV. She had a career and she wasn't on the search for a husband—in fact, she turned down multiple proposals, even one from Dan, a boyfriend who was in several episodes of the series and seemed like a great match. But Mary wasn’t ready; she had too much to do on her own. 

While the St. Petersburg Times initially pronounced Mary a "spinster,” audiences, and soon critics, learned to drop their outdated views of women's roles and move on. 

Along with exploring Mary's relationships with her co-workers and friends, the show covered topics like birth control, religious discrimination, homosexuality, sexism, racial prejudice, and journalists' rights, all without ever getting preachy or failing to entertain. Phyllis' brother was gay, and it was a non-event to everyone once revealed; in fact, Phyllis was relieved because her biggest worry had been that he was dating Rhoda. Mary ended a friendship over anti-Semitism, fought for equal pay when she found out her male predecessor made more than she did, fended off frequent inquiries into why she hadn't gotten married (including a write-up in her alumni magazine that called her “a career gal”), and went to jail for refusing to reveal her source—where she befriended, and later helped, a prostitute. And when there was a strike at the newsroom, Mary had to cross a picket line, because she was management. 

To top it off, Mary spent the night with some of her dates, and in an episode when her parents were visiting, and her mother said, “Don't forget to take your pill,” Mary and her dad simultaneously answered “I won't!” Mary was single, sexually active, took birth control, and was still considered a good girl. In contrast, Laura and Rob Petrie weren't even allowed to sleep in the same bed.

She wasn't ahead of her time, but instead, realistically in it, showing that women's roles had changed, there were still struggles every day, and there was no going back.

Mary Tyler Moore

Women who watched "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" saw independent "career woman" Mary Richards as someone they wanted to be.

SHE HAD POWER BEHIND THE SCENES, AND HITS FAR BEYOND HER OWN SHOWS

Mary wasn't just the star of her show; it came to be because she and her then-husband, TV executive Grant Tinker, wanted to create it. And while they hired male writers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns as head writers—talents that would go on to work on Taxi, The Munsters, The Simpsons—those writers were wise enough to know that to really understand what realistic day-to-day life was like for a woman, they'd need to hire some to write the show. 

The writing team included many female writers, among them Treva Silverman, Pat Nardo, Susan Silver, Jenna McMahon, Marilyn Suzanne Miller, Gloria Banta, Gail Parent, Valerie Curtin, and Mary Kay Place. There were also female directors, much more unusual than female writers, and in the show's fifth season, Moore herself directed an episode, “A Boy's Best Friend,” about Ted's mother wanting to move in with her boyfriend. 

And wisely, Moore steered the savvy, but heartbreaking-to-viewers decision to end the show on a high note. With the ratings still high, the show aired its finale on March 19, 1977, capping its seventh season with one of the most memorable episodes of all.

The independent production company she and Tinker ran went on to produce many more hits. To name just a few: The Bob Newhart Show, The White Shadow, WKRP in Cincinnati, Hill Street Blues, Remington Steele, St. Elsewhere, and Newhart. The show itself launched three successful spinoffs: Rhoda (five seasons, two Emmy awards, and a new ratings record), Phyllis (two seasons), and Lou Grant (five seasons and 13 Emmys). Mary wasn't just an on-screen idol, but a behind-the-scenes powerhouse. 

HER TOSS OF A HAT IS BOTH SYMBOLIC, AND ETERNAL

The day they went to shoot the exteriors in Minneapolis, the temperature was so low that Moore couldn't even speak, her lips were so numb. When she stopped at Nicollet Mall and Seventh Street to do the final shot, director Reza Badiyi told her to “run out into the middle of that intersection and throw your hat up in the air as if this is the happiest moment of your life.” The hat she tossed up was a knitted beret given to Moore by her aunt, and throwing it into the air symbolized the beginning of her new life and her newfound freedom. Frozen in time, that one joyful moment kicked off the show on the perfect note, telling us that Mary Richards wasn’t a wounded victim of a bad relationship, but a young woman embarking on an exciting adventure. 

The show open is as iconic as the woman who stars in it, so beloved that devoted fan Oprah Winfrey recreated it herself, calling it “one of the favorite the most fun things I've ever done.” 

The toss was immortalized in bronze, when a statue of Mary tossing her hat in the air went up in downtown Minneapolis in 2002 to honor both the show, and the woman behind it. 

“Mary, you are a golden person,” said Rhoda in season two. Generations of us couldn’t agree more.