TV icon Mary Tyler Moore died Wednesday, Jan. 25 at the age of 80 after a battle with pneumonia. Throughout her decades-long career, the hilarious actress starred in legendary sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and in the 1980 Oscar-winning film Ordinary People. In 1995, Moore was appearing in the NBC newspaper drama, New York News, and released her first memoir, After All, which chronicled her battle with alcoholism, two divorces, and her life behind the camera. In October of that year, EW’s Jess Cagle, now the Editorial Director of PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly, sat down with Moore to discuss plastic surgery, cussing on TV, and her place in pop culture. Revisit that story below.
Think Mary Tyler Moore: one-room Minneapolis apartment. Shag carpet. Big M on the wall. Lonely foldout sofa. Neighbor named Rhoda.
Now think Mary Tyler Moore: Manhattan apartment on Fifth Avenue. Marble foyer. Matisse on the wall. Handsome cardiologist husband in the master bedroom. Neighbor named Woody Allen. It’s where you could live if you had sold your share of MTM Enterprises in 1988 for a reported $113 million. But you didn’t, and she did, and it’s jarring to see her sitting here in splendor next to a pricey little pre-Columbian sculpture used as a candy dish. You can’t help thinking that unlike The Dick Van Dyke Show‘s Laura Petrie, this is clearly not a woman who does the dusting herself.
It all sort of shatters the image, doesn’t it? In fact, at 58, Moore, uh, Ms. Moore — oh, hell, let’s just call her Mary — has been doing a lot of image shattering lately. Not long ago she sat in David Letterman’s guest chair and told the nation that on her new CBS series, New York News, she planned to say ass a lot. Then she said the F-word a couple of times, too. And she’s not at all sorry about it. ”I know that David has this woman-on-a-pedestal image of me,” she explains, laughing about the incident, ”so it’s fun to put him on the spot. He reminds me of my father.”
It gets worse. You know the face with the smile that turned the world on? She’s had work done on it. ”I’ve lost the baby fat, and with the help of a cosmetic surgeon, I’ve pulled up some of the slack,” she says. ”I like to think of [the surgery] as staying fit. And if it can keep my face up where it belongs, then I will go to a doctor and get his assistance.”
Cussing. Cosmetic surgery. Some weird oedipal thing for Letterman. It’s all too much. Get used to it. In New York News, a gritty series that costars Gregory Harrison (Trapper John, M.D.) as an ace reporter and Madeline Kahn as the paper’s high-maintenance gossip columnist, Mary returns to the newsroom. But it hardly has the fresh-scrubbed, golly-gee feeling of her 1970-77 sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where the sassiest words out of Mary Richards’ mouth were something about Mr. Grant sticking a carrot up his nose. News‘ newsroom is darker, and this time she‘s Mr. Grant — a ballsy boss lady named Louise ”The Dragon” Felcott. Well, lady might be a stretch: Her big scene in the first episode took place in a dingy bathroom, where America got to see her feet sticking out from under a stall door.
”When you first see her in the show, you say, ‘Oh, my goodness, this isn’t the Mary that I was expecting,”’ says New York News‘ executive producer Ian Sander. (No kidding, Ian.) ”But very quickly we come to realize that she is Louise Felcott. There is that cooler, colder side of her that she’s willing to explore.”
”I never thought I’d say this,” says Mary. ”But it’s so easy. I get to go in two, three times a week and drop these great lines of dialogue and then go home.”
The question is, will anyone be listening? The time slot sucks — 9 p.m. on Thursday opposite NBC’s ratings Goliath, Seinfeld. ”It’s a joke, because Seinfeld is the best show on TV,” Mary says with the good-humored resolve of a woman who has seen her share of hits and misses. (News‘ premiere also lost to Fox’s New York Undercover.) ”But hopefully, it will be a good enough show that the network will move us and back us up.”
But there’s a bigger question: Is America ready for Dragon Mary? She just shrugs and says that ”whether or not my [News] character is accepted is not all that important…. It’s not all resting on my shoulders.” Which is true. New York News is what they like to call an ensemble piece; if anyone’s the star, it’s Harrison. But really — as much as everybody loved Harrison in his skivvies in the 1981 male-stripper TV flick For Ladies Only — it’s Mary that people will be tuning in to see.
It’s not as if we haven’t seen her bad before. She scored a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her turn as a cold WASP matron in 1980’s Ordinary People. And she won an Emmy (her seventh) for playing a cruelly corrupt adoption official in 1993’s TV movie Stolen Babies. But it was sweet Mary Richards and even sweeter Laura Petrie that made her a national treasure.
Just listen to fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, who is asked in his recent documentary Unzipped why he likes Mary so much. ”Because I’m an American,” he says, ”and I’m not a stone.” In Minneapolis, where the MTM exteriors were shot, pilgrims still flock to the Victorian house where Mary supposedly lived. Downtown, a Barnes & Noble employee and avid MTM fan named Andrue Scott is always happy to point tourists toward the locations made famous in the opening credits (”…and that‘s where Mary threw her hat in the air”).
But the pop-culture universe can be an awfully fickle place. Mary’s films — including, let’s see, Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967, and, uh, Just Between Friends in 1986 — have never outshone Dick Van Dyke and MTM, and her four subsequent series have failed. Mary diplomatically gripes that her last two attempts, 1985’s Mary and 1988’s Annie McGuire, ”seemed to be arbitrarily put together with countering the image of Mary Richards in mind.” And she’s not one to disavow her old characters. ”At that [early] stage of my life, I was perfectly happy playing myself,” she says. ”But now I think I’ve changed so much, matured so much.”
In her autobiography, After All, coming out this month, she writes openly about her personal storms — her recovery from alcoholism; two divorces, from salesman Richard Meeker in the early ’60s and from TV mogul Grant Tinker in 1981 (she’s been married to Dr. Robert Levine, 41, since 1983); and the accidental death of her only son, Richie, 24, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1980. ”My son’s death was one of the last things I wrote about,” she says quietly. ”I kept putting it off, putting it off.”
In her next two films (slated for release in 1996) she strays from Mary Tyler Moore mode yet again: In Keys to Tulsa, she plays Eric Stoltz’s trashy mother, and in Flirting With Disaster, she’s the neurotic adoptive mother of Ben Stiller. (Reports of a nude scene, however, have been greatly exaggerated. ”I pull up my sweater,” she says, ”but I have a bra on.”)
But Mary hasn’t fully forsaken the Mary Richards part of herself. Every now and then she’ll say something so nice — so sincere, so warmhearted — that you know all is right with the world. For instance, she worries about lobsters. ”They’re put in boiling water, and it takes them five minutes to die,” she says, shuddering like the good vegetarian that she is (last year, she even made a cause célèbre out of an 18-pounder named Spike at a Pacific Palisades, Calif., restaurant). ”And they do feel pain. They have relationships with other lobsters — some actually hold each other’s claws when they’re walking together. Please, somebody out there figure out a way to kill them that doesn’t require them being scalded to death.”
That’s our Mary. And just like the rest of us, when she can’t get to sleep, she watches Dick Van Dyke and MTM reruns on television. She especially enjoys MTM‘s Emmy-winning ”Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode, in which a clown in a peanut outfit gets shelled by an eager elephant and Mary gets church giggles at his funeral. Her favorite Dick at night? ”The one in which I bleached my hair blond and only got half of it dyed back, and Dick came home, and I got to cry for the first time — that opened everyone’s eyes to the fact that I could do some funny stuff.”
But now the hair’s red. And Laura’s capri pants have been replaced by Armani suits. And Oooooh, Rob! is now ass. And we’re not sure whether this new, revamped Mary will make it after all. But we hope she will. Because she’s still Mary. Because we’re Americans. And because we’re not stones.