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TV pioneer Mary Tyler Moore was a modern woman’s role model

She had an iconic smile and laugh, but actress and comedian Mary Tyler Moore was also a revolutionary. The Oscar-nominated actress famously played a single career woman next door and a quirky housewife, changing how women were portrayed. Jeffrey Brown reflects on her life with Cynthia Littleton of Variety and Dick Cavett, a former friend of the late television icon, who died at the age of 80.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight: remembering a TV legend, Mary Tyler Moore.

    And back to Jeffrey Brown, who has our remembrance.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It was sitcom television that signaled and helped push larger cultural change, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in the 1970s, in which the actress played a single, 30-something working woman, Mary Richards, a TV producer at a local Minneapolis station, here with her boss, played by Ed Asner.

  • ED ASNER, Actor:

    You know what? You have got spunk.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MARY TYLER MOORE, Actress:

    Well …

  • ED ASNER:

    I hate spunk.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • ED ASNER:

    I'll tell you what. I will try you out for a couple of weeks and see how it works out. If I don't like you, I will fire you.

  • MARY TYLER MOORE:

    Right, right.

  • ED ASNER:

    If you don't like me, I will fire you.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MARY TYLER MOORE:

    That certainly seems fair.

    I will get a towel from the kitchen.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In the '60s, Moore had been a beloved figure in a more traditional role for women, as the frazzled, but often hilarious wife of Dick Van Dyke on the show bearing his name.

  • MARY TYLER MOORE:

    Snow White lived.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • DICK VAN DYKE, Actor:

    Oh, what a day.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Over the years, she won seven Emmy Awards for her television roles, and an Oscar-nominated performance in the 1980 film "Ordinary People," the story of a disintegrating family following a son's death.

    Moore wrote and spoke of her own struggles, a battle with alcoholism, and with the diabetes she lived with for some 40 years. She was also a champion for animal rights.

    Mary Tyler Moore was 80 years old.

    A short time ago, I spoke with Dick Cavett. He interviewed Mary Tyler Moore a number of times over the years, and was a good friend.

    I began by asking about her talent as a comic actor.

    Dick Cavett, thanks so much for joining us.

    First, Mary Tyler Moore, the comic performer, what did she have?

  • DICK CAVETT, Entertainer:

    She had it all. She had everything.

    And she had more than many comic performers. We had that period of so many wonderful what used to be called comediennes, Lucy and Carol and Mary.

    Mary was extremely beautiful. And that doesn't necessarily go up to that period of time with comediennes. They were either scrawny or had bad hair or looked funny. And to be a beauty and to be a comedienne, witty, and even, when required, slapstick, Mary had it all.

    Once, a writer on the show said, Mary is the only person I have ever worked with who made every script better. And I said, be specific. And he said, all can I say is, when we gave Mary the script, we found laughs in straight lines that we didn't know were there.

    Mary had the greatest laugh, the gutsiest, almost really bawdy laugh that you rarely saw her do on television, a great sense of humor. Though we didn't have the term glass ceilings, she in fact came through one, and made it better for a lot of other women in television by showing that she was somebody who was — a woman could pull, pull the audience in a very big way.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Dick Cavett, thank you very much for joining us.

    And for some more perspective on Mary Tyler Moore's influence, I'm joined now by Cynthia Littleton of "Variety." She has written about Moore and is the author of two books about television.

    You know, Cynthia, it's almost hard to think back to TV in those days, the kinds of subjects that were not discussed, the way women were not portrayed, or the way they were portrayed.

    In what ways did Mary Tyler Moore and that show change things?

  • CYNTHIA LITTLETON, Variety:

    Well, as you said, the image of a strong, independent woman over 30 who wasn't necessarily hunting for a husband, but wanted to build a career, that was pretty revolutionary for September of 1970, when the show premiered.

    And when you think about what was going on in the country, you have the stirrings of the second wave of the modern women's movement. It really was quite a confluence.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, what are examples of some things that she helped bring to the fore in the culture, in popular entertainment?

  • CYNTHIA LITTLETON:

    I think the show very famously made references to her taking birth control bills, made references to her spending the night with dates, made a very early reference to a character, a guest star character being gay as almost a matter-of-fact aside.

    And those were — those were things done in a show that didn't necessarily wear its social consciousness on its sleeve, not as much as "All in the Family," but in reflecting the state of the culture as it stood in the early '70s, just had profound impact.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And much of this, of course, through the very specific persona of Mary Tyler Moore herself, right?

  • CYNTHIA LITTLETON:

    Mary Richards, and I think there was a continuum to the character she played on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Laura Petrie was not a mousy sitcom wife, but very independent, very, very smart. She famously wore capri pants around the house.

    She — Laura Petrie was also — I think Mary Tyler Moore's career truly was a continuum of role models right — that were right for the era.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And, very briefly, I mean, obviously, there was impact in spin-offs from that program, but do you see the impact and legacy today in performers and shows?

  • CYNTHIA LITTLETON:

    So many workplace comedies are always held up against the standard that "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" set.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Such as?

  • CYNTHIA LITTLETON:

    You know, current shows that try to have a workplace setting, like, you know, so many shows over the years.

    That ensemble of characters, it was just a murderers row of Betty White, Cloris Leachman, Valerie Harper, Ed Asner. It really does still set the standard.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Cynthia Littleton of Variety, thank you very much.

  • CYNTHIA LITTLETON:

    Thank you.

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