‘Being Mary Tyler Moore’: New Documentary Offers a Fascinating Look at the Comedy Legend’s Complex and Challenging Life
Mary Tyler Moore, seen here in a scene from her eponymous sitcom in 1975, is the subject of the new HBO documentary, 'Being Mary Tyler Moore.' Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images
“Who would think that Mary Tyler Moore would influence a Black, queer girl from the south side of Chicago?”
That was the first thing Dr. Robert Levine thought, he told Deadline Hollywood, when he read that actress and producer Lena Waithe wanted to do a TV project about his late wife.
After Moore’s death at age 80 in 2017, Levine turned down several requests to celebrate her with a documentary. He said yes to Waithe, however and, as The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song goes, she got to make it after all.
The result is Being Mary Tyler Moore, a two-hour documentary premièring Friday, May 26 on HBO Max and on Crave in Canada.
Levine knew nothing about the 39-year-old Waithe, who created the Showtime series The CHI, when he agreed to allow her to produce the documentary.
What he did know, as he told Deadline Hollywood in the same interview, was that he wanted a fresh perspective, “a new voice to tell Mary’s story.” Moore was more than Laura Petrie and Mary Richards, and faced more heartache and challenges than either of those characters could have imagined.
Levine had taken a similar chance once before. The New York cardiologist knew nothing about Moore when he treated the actress’s mother on a weekend house call. Their 1983 marriage was Moore’s third; he was 18 years her junior.
For her part, Waithe was anxious to explore the woman behind the iconic characters. She teamed with two other Black American filmmakers on the project: director and cinematographer James Adolphus and producer Debra Martin Chase (The Equalizer).
The result is a thoroughly engrossing look at Moore’s complex and challenging life that goes well beyond the usual rehash of her fondly remembered TV roles. What Waithe and others captured is what it really took when it comes to being Mary Tyler Moore. The TV legacy is one thing, but it is her personal contributions in the area of Diabetes research and fundraising, plus her happy ending with third husband Levine, that is her true triumph.
The documentary tells Moore’s story from the beginning. Born in Brooklyn in 1936, her family relocated to Los Angeles when she was eight. She dreamt of becoming a dancer and got to put some of that training to work in her first TV job as “Happy Hotpoint,” a dancing appliance ad elf.
That ended when Moore, who married in her teens, became pregnant with her son Richard. Her next job of note was as a telephone operator on Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Viewers saw her legs but never her face. When fans started asking after the leggy assistant, she asked for a raise. The producer said legs were a dime a dozen in Hollywood and showed her the door.
A single mom in her early 20s, Moore worked bit parts on TV in westerns and dramas. Discouraged, she almost passed on The Dick Van Dyke Show audition. Series creator Carl Reiner, however, days before filming the pilot, hired her minutes into her audition. There was something, he would later explain, in her voice.
Moore found herself the novice in a comedy master class. Reiner, Van Dyke (fresh off his Broadway success in Bye Bye Birdie), Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam were all veteran laugh getters. Within a few episodes, however, writer-producer Reiner had Laura Petrie dyeing her hair and triggering inflatable rafts. The rookie was transformed into a Capri slacks-stunner of a comedienne.
Years later at a California press conference I attended, Van Dyke talked about the thrill of seeing Moore’s freckled face at rehearsals. She was 12 years his junior, which bothered him — and no one else ever — as he worried that, in 1961, viewers wouldn’t buy a marriage between a 24-year-old woman and a 36-year-old man.
Early in the series run, she fell in love with a New York ad exec named Grant Tinker. Borrowing his wife’s initials, he eventually created MTM Enterprises, a studio synonymous with quality television.
Another famous comedienne was Moore’s studio landlady during the run of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Desilu head Lucille Ball could be heard cackling at rehearsals and praised Moore as a true comedy talent. By the time the series ended after five seasons in 1966, Moore had won two Best Actress Emmys and her future looked limitless.
The movies that followed, however, did not advance her career, despite roles opposite the likes of Julie Andrews and Elvis. An attempt to star Moore in a Broadway musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a dismal flop.
Writer-producer Bill Persky, then hired to script annual specials for Van Dyke, suggested it might be fun to re-team him with Moore in a musical comedy hour. The 1969 special, Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman, was a hit, re-energizing her career.
For her next series, Moore had the great fortune to go from Carl Reiner to James L. Brooks and Allan Burns. They created The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970 to 1977. Moore and the outstanding comedy ensemble, including Ed Asner, Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman (all spun off into their own series’), went on to collect a then record 29 Emmy Awards.
Harper later noted how Moore’s character Mary Richards was the girl you wanted to be, Rhoda the girl you probably were and Phyllis the girl you were afraid you’d wind up as. The relationship of those three women gave the show its heart and mind and made it unique.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a game changer in its depiction of a young single woman trying to make it on her own. Several key episodes were written by women, notably Treva Silverman and Susan Silver, both featured in the documentary.
In real life, however, Moore was seldom single. She married at 18 and then again, this time to Tinker, at 24. When that union ended after 19 years, she moved in her mid-40s back to New York. It was only then when she enjoyed the kind of single-and-dating life she portrayed as Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
What brought her back to New York in 1980 was the opportunity to step into the lead of a Broadway play. Moore’s dramatic turn in Whose Life Is It Anyway? earned her a Special Tony award.
The death of her only son Richard in 1980 from an accidental gunshot wound came just as she was re-establishing herself as a dramatic actress. The loss came mere weeks before Moore received acclaim and eventually an Oscar nomination for her role as a grieving mother in director Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.
The ups and downs in her professional and her personal life came with a price. In two autobiographies, including 1995’s After All, Moore was very open about her struggles with alcoholism, working things out on one occasion at the Betty Ford Centre.
What helped her get through it all was her own brand of what Mary Richards’ boss Lou Grant called “spunk.” Levine, who she married in 1982, defined it, again to Deadline Hollywood, as “energy, optimism, determination, grace and grit.”
Moore kept making movies, including 1996’s Flirting with Disaster, but threw herself more into her work as the International Chairperson of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. During her lifetime, she helped raise more than two billion dollars towards finding a cure for the disease.
One of her latter film projects was the 2000 TV-movie Mary & Rhoda, written by Canadian Katie Ford. I met Moore and Levine on this occasion at a Television Critics Association press even in Pasadena.
ABC had a sword and sandals epic on its schedule that season and had the Pasadena party venue decked out in an “Arabian Nights” motif. A live camel was out in front on a lawn and Moore, a big animal rights activist, fearlessly marched up, threw her arms around its neck and posed for pictures with the thousand-pound beast.
I remember standing next to Levine at the impromptu shoot and he was basically holding his breath. “She has no fear,” I said to Levine.
He stammered back, “Yup.”
Being Mary Tyler Moore premières Friday, May 26 on HBO Max and on Crave in Canada.
She Made It After All: The Groundbreaking Legacy of The Mary Tyler Moore Show