(Image: movieandsports.com)
Mary Tyler Moore covers TV Guide. (Image: movieandsports.com)

TMP is largely a mid-20th century film blog, but as you may have noticed I also like to talk about classic television from time to time. One of my favorite classic television series is The Dick Van Dyke Show, which I’ve been re-watching and sharing my thoughts on through a “Recap and React” blog series. Today, for the Funny Lady Blogathon hosted by Movies, Silently, I’m paying tribute to one of the stars of that series: Mary Tyler Moore!

Before she became a famed television star who eventually starred in her very own series (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 1970 – 1977), Mary Tyler Moore was the daughter of George Tyler Moore and his wife Marjorie. The family lived in New York, and Mary was the oldest of three children.

When Mary was eight, her family packed up and moved to Los Angeles, where she dreamed of becoming a dancer. In fact, her career began in dance with an appearances as a dancing elf in Happy Hotpoint commercials on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet during the 1950s.

Here’s one of Mary’s Hotpoint commercials:

Mary was no one-trick pony, though. In addition to her appliance-themed dance gig, she modeled and began auditioning for larger television roles.

Some of Mary's early, anonymous modeling shots were used as album covers.  (Image: Etsy)
Some of Mary’s early modeling gigs, prior to her star-making role in The Dick Van Dyke Show, were photo shoots for album covers like this one. (Image: Etsy)

Through the late 1950s, Mary continued to appear in small roles on television. Some notable series in which she was involved include The Eddie Fisher Show and The George Burns Show. But she wanted more than just one-episode guest appearances: she wanted a starring role.

Having no luck scoring a recurring role as the daughter of Danny Thomas on his show, Mary finally got a semi-break with a role as a receptionist on Richard Diamond, Private Detective. The catch? Her character was a mysterious one, and only her legs could appear on camera. Her voice was heard, but her face was never seen.

During the same period Mary continued to take on guest roles on series such as Johnny Staccato and Overland Trail. Most of her earliest television roles are in detective series. From then on, her roles began to slowly grow in prominence.

In 1961, Mary got her true “big break” when Carl Reiner cast her in a brand new series, The Dick Van Dyke Show, as the lead character’s wife. She had been recommended for the role by Danny Thomas, who had turned her down for his own show a few years earlier.

It goes without saying that Mary Tyler Moore’s depiction of Laura Petrie is phenomenal. She brings an incredible amount of energy to every one of her scenes. She also managed to both work perfectly with and hold her own against the comedic talents of her co-star, Dick Van Dyke.

Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke as Laura and Rob Petrie (Image: Flickr)
Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke as Laura and Rob Petrie (Image: Flickr)

The show is often praised for its clever, witty writing and that is certainly one of its strongest assets, but without the right cast it wouldn’t have been as successful. Mary was one member of a comedic ensemble that just fell into place perfectly, and she gained international fame as Laura Petrie. She also won an Emmy for her work on the show.

Mary dabbled in film after The Dick Van Dyke show ended, often sticking to the comedic roles that seemed to come so naturally to her. She did take on some drama as well, though, and proved to be equally talented in that arena.

Showcasing her dramatic chops would never become the central focus of Mary’s career, though. She made the decision to return to TV in 1970, but would only do so completely on her own terms — with her own show, produced by her own company (MTM Enterprises). The result was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the project for which she remains most well-known.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was (and still is, by many) regarded as a groundbreaking series. The series had a number of female writers, which was pretty rare during its time, and managed to become a success despite much early resistance from the network. Most of all, though, Mary Tyler Moore’s character of Mary Richards opened up a completely new type of portrayal of women on television: the single, smart, happy, working 30-year-old woman. Her single status was not explained by a sad divorce (though this was considered in the show’s early stages), nor was it used as a reason for the audience to pity her.

For years, television portrayals of women had been limited — usually to the cute, obedient wife character, which Mary herself had portrayed in The Dick Van Dyke Show. (As much as I love Laura Petrie and as hilarious as Mary is in that role, that character was no ground-breaker in terms of breaking out of the “pretty, pleasant wife” mold.)

Mary Richards was often a character who pushed these boundaries in subtle ways, but sometimes her character’s arc was more controversial. In season three, she begins taking birth control pills, for example. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is not a series that directly aligns with every single aspect of feminism. Far from it, in fact; there are some gender roles Mary chooses not to challenge or question. But she places an equal emphasis on career and marriage, which was a huge step forward at the time. The boundaries could have been pushed much further with the character, but only at the risk of losing the audience entirely.

(Image: HuffPost)
(Image: HuffPost)

It was a smart choice on part of the writers not to completely alienate the audience by packing the show with progressive ideals. Much of Mary Richards’ “freshness” as a strong female television character stems from the fact that she challenges some of the ideals of the past while remaining relatable to the “average” Americans who were watching the show. The show’s sense of realism quite obviously comes from the fact that women packed the show’s writers’ room and were able to write their own experiences into the scripts. Mary Tyler Moore delivered each of these scripts with sincerity and charm, and became a face that helped debunk the “women can’t be funny” myth.

Though a talented actress in both drama and comedy, and on the big screen and the small, Mary Tyler Moore will always be best-remembered as a pioneering female comedienne on television. Her Emmy-winning roles on both The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show remain a complete delight for modern audiences to enjoy, while at the same time giving us a peek into the slowly changing societal norms of the decades in which they were produced, and how those norms were reflected in popular culture.

This post was written for the Funny Lady Blogathon. Click on the image below to check out more about the blogathon and read contributions from other bloggers!

Funny Lady Blogathon

Mary Tyler Moore on IMDb
Mary Tyler Moore on biography.com
NPR “The Women Who Inspired Other Women”