Mary Tyler Moore Dead at 80; Actress Played the Iconic Independent Career Woman on Her Classic Sitcom

Star of iconic Mary Tyler Moore Show whose sunny, warm TV belied trauma in her personal life had battled diabetes

By Natalie Finn Jan 25, 2017 7:43 PMTags

Mary Tyler Moore turned the world on with her smile and reminded an entire generation that self-fulfillment was the secret to happiness.

The seven-time Emmy winner, whose eponymous 1970s sitcom idealized the single lady lifestyle and became one of the all-time classic ensemble comedies, has died. She was 80.

"Today, beloved icon, Mary Tyler Moore, passed away at the age of 80 in the company of friends and her loving husband of over 33 years, Dr. S. Robert Levine," her rep said in a statement to E! News. "A groundbreaking actress, producer, and passionate advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Mary will be remembered as a fearless visionary who turned the world on with her smile."

Moore had been in poor health for some time and had been hospitalized in Connecticut with complications from diabetes.

The star of stage and screen had a unique career arc that saw her play both consummate housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s before she became the beret-tossing career gal Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Mary Tyler Moore: A Life in Pictures

She won her first two Emmys for Dick Van Dyke and would go on to win four for Mary Tyler Moore, as well as one for best supporting actress in a miniseries or special for the 1993 TV movie Stolen Babies.


In 2012, Van Dyke presented Moore with the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.

"In 1955, I was 18 years old, determined to make my father proud and prove to the sisters at Immaculate Heart High School that I would indeed amount to something," Moore opened her acceptance speech with a wink to her Catholic school days. After seeking out SAG, she soon learned there were half a dozen other Mary Moores registered—but despite being advised to change her name, her only concession was to add what would become her iconic middle name to her signature.

And the nuns need not have worried.

The Brooklyn-born actress toiled steadily in smaller roles for about 10 years before landing the role of Laura Petrie, whom Moore also turned into a style icon with her perfect flip and on-point capri pants, in 1961.

CBS via Getty Images

After Dick Van Dyke ended in 1966, Moore landed her first major movie role in the 1967 musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, playing a prim rich girl with old-fashioned curls opposite Julie Andrews' smartly bobbed stenographer.


Moviestore Collection/REX/Shutterstock

She made several films, but then history came calling in the form of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in which she played TV news writer Mary Richards, who proved with her legendary best-friendship with Valerie Harper's Rhoda Morgenstern, her close-knit coterie at work and her smart studio apartment in Minneapolis that finding Mr. Right needn't be first on any woman's list. 

MTM of course tackled Mary's misadventures in dating, but it also addressed the sexual revolution, workplace politics, the gender gap as far as equal treatment and pay and other issues pertinent to women trying to make their way in the world.

"I'm particularly proud...of the show where Mary finds out that the man who had the job before her earned a good deal more money, and she takes Lou [Grant, played by Ed Asner] to task for this," the actress said in a 1997 interview for the Archive of American Television. "And he listens to her and agrees with her and says, That is terribly unfair and you have every right to me to come and ask for an answer.' And you know, she does her thing that she did, and he says, 'But would it make any difference to you if I tell you that man was married and had three children?' And it made a difference to Mary.

"Sure we like to see things perfect, and we like to see a level playing field, but there were extenuating circumstances and I loved that about her. I loved that she didn't take the fight further."

In 2002, ahead of the airing of The Mary Tyler Moore Reunion on CBS, Moore told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that she preferred to categorize MTM as a situation comedy, rather than a sitcom.

"They were not trying to make a point. They were not trying to get someone elected," she said. "They were not trying to reflect exactly what was going on in our culture or its changes; they were just trying to write about human emotions and relationships. What's it like to be jealous of your best friend, little things that had not really been examined on television before, but are so common."

"That whole set was really copacetic. It was all fun," Harper recalled in the 2015 PBS special Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration. "We laughed so much, but we really worked very hard." Moore was an "incredibly generous girl," one who never tried to keep all the best lines or otherwise hog the camera, Harper told Entertainment Weekly while discussing the documentary. "She's really just a great person."

Moore would reprise her role on the MTM spin-off Rhoda, which saw Harper's fiery window dresser take center stage (the ladies would also reunite for the 2000 TV movie Mary and Rhoda), and then she starred in the short-lived The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, in which she played another character named Mary, only this time Mary McKinnon was the harried star of a variety show who had her kooky crew to deal with every week.

But after that ended, the real-life MTM wanted to try something new.

Celebrity Deaths: 2017's Fallen Stars

Moore was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for the 1980 drama Ordinary People, in which she played a well-heeled housewife who can't reconcile her grief and her relationship with her husband and youngest son after her eldest son dies in an accident.

"That was such a change of pace, that a woman could be so brittle inside that she could alienate her son," Moore also told the Archive of American Television. "I saw her as a victim. I saw her as very reminiscent of my own life. So I had to do that role—and I thank god for [director] Robert Redford, who had the vision to believe that I could, in fact, pull it off."


The role was a departure for both Moore, her fans and her Hollywood peers, all of whom were used to her as a perennially perky and warm-hearted character, be it on the small screen or in light-hearted film fare.

"She had only done these bright, happy things, so I felt pretty awkward going in there and suggesting she play a darker character," Redford told Entertainment Weekly in 2016 on occasion of the film's 35th anniversary. "But she was very excited and wanted to do it."

And despite the initial reluctance from studios to bankroll the project, particularly with Moore as a dramatic lead, Ordinary People went onto win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Timothy Hutton, who played Moore's surviving son.

Actors Turned Directors

"I was thrilled for Redford and Tim and for everyone," Moore said last year. "Best Picture is about the contributions of every one of the people listed in the credits, so while I was personally disappointed that I did not win, having the chance to work with such an extraordinary group was reward enough for me."

Moore said that the character of Beth Jarrett reminded both her and Redford of their own stern fathers. "I imagine a bit of him in me—along with my own tendency to want everything to be perfect—set the table for bringing Beth to life on film," she told EW.

Meanwhile, Moore's onscreen warmth in her classic TV roles belied a more troubled private life. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1969, when she was 33. She struggled with alcoholism in the 1970s, as her mother had before her, and her younger sister, Elizabeth, died of a drug overdose in 1978.

In October 1980, a month after Ordinary People was released, Moore's only son, Richard Carlton Meeker Jr., fatally shot himself in what authorities ultimately ruled an accident while he was loading a shotgun. He was 24. Moore's MTM co-star and longtime friend Asner led the rites at Meeker's funeral at Westwood Memorial Park and Mortuary in Los Angeles; cast mates Harper, Gavin McLeod and Ted Knight were all in attendance, as were series creator James L. Brooks and Dick Van Dyke creator Carl Reiner.


"She has moments of terrible sadness, of course, but she's strong," Moore's second husband, TV executive Grant Tinker, told reporters at the time. "She's hanging in there. She will be fine, but it's going to take time." Tinker and Moore divorced in1981 but remained friends until his death last year.

Moore's brother, John, died in 1992 at the age of 47 after a battle with cancer—and Moore would later reveal in her 1995 autobiography After All that she and her third husband, Dr. Robert Levine, attempted to help him commit suicide by feeding him ice cream laced with drugs. John eventually died three months later.

The actress wrote that, after the attempt failed, she called her brother's doctor for advice. "He was not surprised at the attempt we'd made, nor its failure," she recalled. "If I were ever in the same situation as John, I'd be grateful to have a sister with your courage."

Stars Who Adopted Pets
AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler

Having battled diabetes for most of her life, Moore became an outspoken advocate and fundraiser for research and treatment. She and Levine, whom she married in 1983, established the Excellence in Clinical Research Award with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to honor contributions toward the understanding and management of the disease

Moore was also an animal lover whose pet causes included the ASPCA and other animal rights charities. Her concern for all species eventually prompted her to become a vegetarian and stop wearing leather.

"Animals can give you so much in terms of a warm, full, rich feeling about yourself and  your life," Moore told The Pet Press in 1999. "When you sit down with an animal or just watch it playing off on its own with another animal, you are inspired.  And that stays with you. And that gives you more to go on than you ever had before."

Until her health prevented it, Moore never stopped working. She memorably played Ben Stiller's adoptive mom in the 1996 big-screen comedy Flirting With Disaster and appeared in a dozen TV movies and series, including The Naked Truth, Lipstick Jungle and That '70s Show

Her final acting role was a guest spot on Hot in Cleveland in 2013, her second appearance on the TV Land sitcom which saw her reunite with Mary Tyler Moore Show co-stars Harper, Cloris LeachmanBetty White and Georgia Engel.

"It's wonderful, but it makes me sad too," Moore told Entertainment Tonight at the time. "It makes me feel, well, why don't I have this in my current life? Where are all these friends, buddies, and co-workers, and people who loved each other? Why can't they be around? Or maybe they can."

Moore is survived by Levine.