Goodbye Mary Tyler Moore: She turned the world on with her smile--and her feminism

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Submitted photo.

It was a life well lived.

Mary Tyler Moore, one of television's most influential and iconic performers, died on Jan. 25 at the age of 80. She leaves behind an incomparable legacy.

Moore first rose to prominence when she was cast as housewife Laura Petrie on the classic sitcom "The Dick Van Dyke Show" in 1961. The show, which ran for five seasons, retains a sizable audience today--it was hilarious! But those who are discovering "The Dick Van Dyke Show" today might not realize how groundbreaking it was.

Though they slept in twin beds--as dictated by network censors at the time--Rob and Laura Petrie were TV's first couple who acted as though they were sexually attracted to each other--there was no doubting it when watching their on-camera body language. Looking at reruns of some of the era's other sitcoms, including "Father Knows Best," "Leave it to Beaver" or "The Donna Reed Show," you might wonder where the kids came from--did Mom and Dad ever touch each other? On "The Dick Van Dyke Show" it was obvious that Rob and Laura were having hot sex.

And Laura, as interpreted by Moore, was one hot mama. The stunningly beautiful Moore started a 1960s fashion trend when she appeared on camera in a pair of sexy Capri slacks and performed a somewhat provocative dance in her living room.

The Capris were Moore's idea: she didn't want Laura to be seen doing the dishes in pearls and heels as other TV moms did. Throughout her career, Moore strove for truth in her portrayals.

Moore's most famous role was, of course, Mary Richards on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (1970-1977). Once again Moore's desire for truth had an effect on the show's direction. Originally conceived as a divorced working woman, the Mary Richards who made it onto the air was a never married, sexually active working girl who turned down several marriage proposals, used contraception, and demanded equal pay for equal work.

During the 1970s a character like Mary was unheard of on network television--Moore became a feminist icon. No less than Oprah Winfrey has stated that Moore's portrayal of TV news producer Mary Richards inspired her to go into television.

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was unafraid to tackle "uncomfortable" topics. In a 1973 episode titled "My Brother's Keeper," the brother of Mary's landlord Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) is revealed to be gay--which everyone knows about except Phyllis. And in "Chuckles Bites the Dust" (1975), which many consider to be the show's greatest episode, writers addressed how different people deal with death.

During her post-sitcom career, Moore showed her serious side--and her incredible personal strength. She received an Oscar nomination for her role as a bereaved, overbearing mom in the film "Ordinary People" (1980)--she attended the Oscar ceremony soon after her only child was killed in an accidental shooting. Moore soldiered on because the alternative was unacceptable to her.

A diabetic and a recovering alcoholic, Moore spoke openly of her struggles and tirelessly campaigned for funding in support of diabetes research---she was the International Chairman for Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and testified before Congress for the cause. She was also involved in animal rights activism.

Moore was never afraid to take chances in her choice of roles. In 2001 she starred in "Like Mother Like Son," a TV movie in which she dived into the role of Santa Kimes, a real-life sociopathic con artist and murderer.

Her most courageous role may have been her final one: at age 78 she was reunited with her "Mary Tyler Moore" co-stars for an episode of the sitcom "Hot in Cleveland." Moore was quite ill by this time--she was legally blind during her final years, the result of her 40-year struggle against her diabetes. She went on camera barely able to see and gave her all.

Mary Tyler Moore was one of a kind. We will never see her like again. At a time when terrible things are happening in our country, we can look back upon Moore's life and see ourselves at our very best.


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