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Remembering Mary Tyler Moore, Whose Sunny Smile Masked Steel

Actress Mary Tyler Moore filming <em>First You Cry</em> in 1978 in New York City.
Marty Lederhandler
Actress Mary Tyler Moore filming First You Cry in 1978 in New York City.

I am surrounded by Mary Tyler Moores: smart, strong, independent women who have enriched the news business, and, for that matter, our world.

When Mary Tyler Moore died this week, at the age of 80, a lot of women in the news business — and women who are lawyers, teachers, accountants, and software engineers — cited Mary Richards, the role she played on The Mary Tyler Moore Show from 1970 to 1977, as an inspiration.

But I think a lot of young men in the news business, myself included, were also motivated by Mary Tyler Moore. Her show made news look like a nice way to spend your life: interesting and rewarding work, in the company of kind, funny people who shared jokes, sorrows, worries and celebrations.

The show was created by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns. By 1973, 25 of the show's 75 writers were women.

Looking back, I think the balance of women and men in the writer's room helped make women characters more compelling and complete. Mary, and her friends Rhoda, Phyllis, and Sue Ann, all made their own way in life.

But I think it deepened the portrayal of men, too. Gruff Lou Grant got heart-sick to tears when his wife walked out of their long marriage. You could see, in Ted Baxter's silver-haired bluster, the bombast of a man who was scared he couldn't measure up to his own 8 X 10 glossy image. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a sitcom that showed women who were on their own, and happy, and men who could tell them how being on your own didn't always make you as happy as you'd hoped.

Mary Tyler Moore's famous sunniness could mask a lot of steel. She said, without telling too many stories about it, that she'd had a childhood that made her sing and dance for approval. She struggled to live with diabetes. She had a son who died in his 20s, lost a sister to drugs, and a brother to cancer. Mary Tyler Moore suffered from a drinking problem for 10 or more years, worked hard to overcome it, and was strong enough to talk about it.

In later years, she was drawn to serious, often searing roles: the mother who has lost a child in the 1980 film, Ordinary People; and the paralyzed sculptor in the Broadway production of Whose Life Is It Anyway? And she was outstanding.

But a lot of us will always think of Mary Tyler Moore with that smile that could melt a Minnesota winter, captured in freeze-frame on a snowy street, as she flung her knit cap into the air. I like to think Mary's cap will never come down.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.