My obituary of the actress Mary Tyler Moore went online at the Guardian last night; I had written it a few months ago. You can link to it here. It is as I wrote it, and I hope it conveys my fascination with the parallels between her life and her on screen roles. Even the way she entered the business, first as a dancer and then as a pair of legs at an answering service switchboard, seemed to suggest her difficulties in overcoming the insecurities of projecting characters who are somehow not supposed to be yourself, but reflect your own perception of self even as you bring them to life. This seemed to be her battle throughout her career, and much of her career seemed to go out of its way to make the similarities obvious.
I didn't write about how big an influence she was in the Dick Van Dyke Show. Kids my age had crushes on her, moving beyond the women we wish were our moms, like Donna Reed or Loretta Young, to her being the epitome of allure in that early 60s Jackie Kennedy way. There is something to be written about the relative nerdiness/powerlessness of the men in those early 60s sitcoms; where the 50s husband/fathers were relative inert, but strong presences, Rob Petrie and his equivalents (think Bewitched, I Dream Of Jeannie, Green Acres) were males whose inert Father Knows Best presence was crossed with the bit of Ricky Ricardo when faced with the anarchic chaos of Lucy. This was something Mad Men captured pretty well, along with the other side of the coin, was the men you'd find in a John D MacDonald novel.
Just as importantly, she was someone the female audience identified with. Originally, she was a hoofer learning comedy; Dick Van Dyke was glowing this morning on the radio explaining what a quick study she was as a comedienne, but it was always fun to watch them dance together, or do slapstick with an easy fitting brilliance. But as Mary Richards she was just the kind of hesitant, insecure, struggling woman to whom the middle-American audience could relate. She was the Catholic school girl in the midst of New York comedy (even when set in Minneapolis) and she played brilliantly off Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Gavin MacLeod and the rest, and was especially good cutting the even-more-brittle fragile-ego'd Ted Baxter down to size.
When Mary Tyler Moore said 'I play me' she wasn't lying. I mention her exceptional performance as Mary Todd Lincoln in the TV mini-series (Sam Waterson was Lincoln) was exactly the role she had played with such emotional impact in Ordinary People eight years earlier. It's also interesting to see the close parallel with Sally Field's interpretation in Spielberg's Lincoln, Field being another who often seems to be playing herself.
In British terms her biggest impact might have been through MTM Enterprises, but that was primarily Grant Tinker's baby, and the parallel with her life is again a strong one. But were there no Hill Street Blues, there would have been no The Bill in Britain, without St. Elsewhere there would never have been a Casualty.
We often discount celebrities when they take to the confessional mode, and I have to admit feeling sadness every time I looked at her face seemingly ravaged by cosmetic surgeries. But that reminded me how Mary Tyler Moore was hard to dismiss, precisely because of how visibly difficult the process was for her. She had been an aspirational figure to American women for two decades in the 60s and 70s, she then became an inspiration one for two decades later. That is no mean feat.