Mary Tyler MooreMary Tyler Moore interview by Chet Cooper

There are only a few people that most Americans can recognize by their initials, FDR, JFK, LBJ and MLK perhaps. However, they have all been dead and abbreviated in the history books for over twenty years now. Think about it. How many public figures, alive and well today, could you recall by their initials alone? I only know of one, the kitten that roared Mary Tyler Moore.

While it seems she is modestly unaware of it herself, she has had a significant impact on late twentieth century America. Not in the overt sense of the aforementioned abbreviated figures but in a more subtle way she has made her mark. A quick review of web sites on the Internet or even something as remote as feminist literature in academic journals provides strong evidence that Mary and the characters she brought into our living rooms changed American culture and the role of women in the workplace. Laura Petrie, unlike Harriet Nelson or June Cleaver, was the first woman to literally and figuratively occasionally wear the pants in the family on television. And in the 1970s, during the hey day of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, a whole generation of women learned to look at situations in their lives and ask, "What would Mary do?"

At the same time, few people really know the real Mary behind Laura Petrie and Mary Richards. It is often difficult for us to separate the characters we see on television from the actors who play them. If we were to ask a random selection of people on the street what they thought Mary Tyler Moore's life has been like they would perhaps be quick to reference the experiences of her television alter egos from the Dick Van Dyke Show and the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Yet, in reality, Mary has lived a life much more ordinary than any one of us could imagine. Unlike her sitcom counterparts she has had to wrestle with the very serious and unfunny aspects of alcoholism, diabetes, a miscarriage, divorce and the tragic accidental death of her son. Anyone who has read her recent autobiography, After All, understands that she is quietly aware that the reality of life can often be much more of a drama than a sitcom. Yet, while many of us in similar circumstances would have perhaps turned inward, Mary has always kept herself and her work in the limelight. And I don't just mean her Emmy winning television shows or her Oscar winning performance in Ordinary People. No, the real star is the real Mary Tyler Moore.

In recent years she has dedicated herself to improving the lives of people with disabilities and with changing the way we think about animals in our society. She has served as the spokesperson for the Juvenile Diabetes Association (JDF) since 1985 and works actively in conjunction with government and the research community to improve the lives of not only people with diabetes but a variety of other health concerns.
She has brought her passion for these issues to the screen and stage in roles where she has depicted a breast cancer patient in the Emmy nominated drama, First You Cry and as a hospitalized quadriplegic in her Tony winning performance in Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van DykeRecently, Mary was able to merge her work with disabilities and animal rights, acting as the host for an award show where in her own words, "All the winners have nothing to say and they are all completely naked". No, it wasn't a silent nudist convention, it was an HBO special dedicated to the miracles of animal assisted therapy. The winners were a diverse group, cats, dogs, horses, a turtle, a pig and even a stingray which had brought care and comfort to people with disabilities.

Mary hopes to one day be able to say she changed the way people think about animals the same way she helped change how we think about women in the workplace. As she remarks, "I'm convinced, with heightened awareness, that there will come a time when we look back and say, 'Can you believe that people used to eat animals? A human being has been given an intellect to make choices, and we know there are other food sources that do not require the killing of a creature that would protest being killed."

We spoke to Mary about her work and her passions and in the end found that a lot of what is inside the real Mary Tyler Moore, despite all the challenging times she has had, really is that happy inspiring screen presence we have come to know over the past thirty-five years. She plans on returning to the small screen next year in a new sitcom entitled Mary and Rhoda. In a year where there won't be any Jerry Seinfeld and too much Jerry Springer, America will undoubtedly welcome the intelligence and wit of an MTM sitcom back into the prime-time lineup.

Chet Cooper: Looking at some of the pictures you have here I am quite interested in knowing the background behind them. This one with you and Elvis Presley?

Mary Tyler Moore: I was his last leading lady. And it was funny because not that many years after the film was finished, he was quoted as saying, “I’ve slept with everyone of my leading ladies except one.” I don’t want to bust anyone’s cover, but I know who the one is.

CC: Can you spell her name?Mary Tyler Moore and Elvis Presley

MTM: Me! (laughs)

CC: And that’s spelled M-E? (laughs) How did you feel about that?

MTM: Well, I was married at the time. He didn’t seem too interested in me anyway and to tell you the truth he was not my type. He kind of viewed me on a pedestal, he would talk to me with his head down and kick the sand; I guess from my image of the Dick Van Dyke Show days — and he kept calling me Ma’am.

CC: What about this picture with you and Robert Redford? Is this on the set of Ordinary People?

MTM: Yes, it was. There are few 100 percents in life but the whole experience on that film was a 100 percent experience. It was creatively satisfying and it provided me with a source of comfort. I was just beginning my separation from Grant Tinker at that time. As a director, Robert Redford was just my dream. He was so thoroughly prepared and yet he is a complete artist. He let you give birth to feelings and emotions that you never knew you had. Not only did he allow it but also he required it. He would remind me if I fell back on a Mary Richard’s gesture. From all standpoints it was a great experience.

CC: I also read that Robert Redford said he slept with every one of his leading ladies except one.

MTM: (laughs) I doubt that. I don’t think that would be a Redford addiction.

CC: What about this photograph with you and Gene Kelly?

MTM: That was a high point. He had been my idol. I was in love with him as a teenager and that was the short-lived variety show that I did. He came on as a guest. I really was not there for the whole week. I was just circling Pluto or something. The show was called a “sitvar”. It was a situation comedy and variety show and the plot was that he was a guest on my show but I threw my back out and couldn’t dance. And another thing was actually happening to me: I was so dazzled being next to him that I couldn’t remember the steps. It was a tough week for me but one I wouldn’t trade for anything.

CC: And this photo with Dudley Moore?

MTM: That was a sweet movie which went wrong because of the direction. I don’t know if you’d remember it but Dudley played a cardiologist who was supposed to be superficial and career driven and not paying attention to his family. When his little girl develops leukemia and he falls in love with me, therein lies a metamorphosis where he realizes the good things in life, and there is a big change in him. But it was hard for there to be any change because he was adorable right from the beginning. No matter the words on the script there was no doubt that this was a man with a good soul....


More stories from Mary Tyler Moore issue: (1998)

NASA and El Nino

Diabetes: Your Health and Resource Guide