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Mary Tyler Moore: The life and death of the woman who could turn the world on with a smile

Mary Tyler Moore, who died Wednesday, Jan. 25 at the age of 80, was known for her megawatt smile but she was much more than that. Moore was a beloved actress, an activist and she fought the demons of a troubled past.



Born on Dec. 29, 1936, in Brooklyn Heights, New York, Moore moved with her family to California at age 8. She grew up in a Catholic household and attended Immaculate Heart High School. At age 17, Moore got her first big break as a dancer. She played Happy the dancing elf in the “Happy Hotpoint” appliance commercials. In 1955, at the age of 18, Moore married her first husband, Richard Carleton. She became pregnant almost immediately which ended her career as Happy when the pregnancy became too difficult to hide.

At age 24, Moore was cast as the character that would win hearts in every household in the country. Moore played the wife of Dick Van Dyke, Laura Petrie, in The Dick Van Dyke Show which aired from 1961 to 1966. The actress made Laura’s character stand apart from other housewife’s on TV and not just because she popularized capri pants. At 11 years Van Dyke’s junior, Moore’s character was not just an accessory, but his partner in comedy. Moore won two Emmys for her work on the show.

In 1970, Moore and her second husband, Grant Tinker (whom she married in 1962), successfully pitched The Marry Tyler Moore Show to CBS. As both producer and star of the show, Moore created a cultural phenomenon which helped change society’s attitude towards women in the workplace. The show followed the life of Mary Richards, a successful, single woman and the challenges she faced as a woman in the workplace. Mary even tackled the wage gap in 1972. In the first episode of the third season, Mary confronts her boss when she discovers that she has been paid less than her male counterpart. Though he avoids her at first, by the end of the 30-minute segment, he gives in and gives Mary a $50 raise. Though the show ended in 1977, it held the record for winning the most Emmys (29) until Frasier beat it in 2002.

After The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended, Moore had a difficult time finding the spotlight again. Though she worked on many projects throughout the rest of her life, including TV, movies and theater, Moore spent much of her time as an activist. Moore was the International Chairman of JDFR (formerly known as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation). Moore herself was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and used her celebrity status to raise awareness of the disease. Moore was also a vegetarian and campaigned for the better treatment of animals. She worked with Farm Sanctuary and was the co-founder of Broadway Barks, an annual animal adopt-a-thon held in New York City.

Though Moore spread happiness both through her comedy and her philanthropy, Moore’s own life had a dark hue. Moore’s first two marriages were unhappy. In an excerpt of her biography, published in People’s Magazine, she wrote, “As thrilled and bursting with excitement over my work as I was, I was equally without emotion at home.” She describes herself as being too busy for her son which caused him to have troubles at school. Her unhappiness in her home life drove her towards alcoholism, which both her mother and her sister had struggled with. Her sister had died from a combination of painkillers and alcohol and Moore expressed that it was only luck that kept her alive. In the same biography she mentions that “on more than one occasion I played Russian roulette with my car. What’s more, some unwary, innocent people played with me.” Moore’s son also struggled with addiction and in 1980, was killed at age 24 by an accidental gunshot to the head. That year Moore separated from her second husband.

Eventually, Moore was able to recover from her addiction. In an interview with Larry King on Larry King Live in 2005, she told King, “There’s no way to do it but fill it with something else. And that something else is the joy of living, reading, being creative, know you’re doing the right thing.”

She remarried in 1983 to Dr. Robert Levine, whom she remained married to until the end of her life.

Moore received a total of six Emmys, was inducted into the TV Hall of Fame in 1986 and in 1992, received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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