(February 26, 2005)

Something About Mary

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

She phones from her car on a drive from Los Angeles to San Diego and, though it's a muddy cellphone connection, you can hear the smile in Mary Tyler Moore's voice. She is happy for the distraction (she's not doing the driving) and gladly talks openly about her work, her passions and personal tragedies. She'll do the same, she says, when she comes to the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College on Monday, the first speaker in this year's Journal News Life&Style Lecture Series.

She was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of an alcoholic mother and a distant father who, Moore writes in her autobiography, "thought children should be born already 18, married, and living in a neighboring town."

Despite professional success, she battled personal demons, including alcoholism. She has been married three times and her only child, Richard, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1980 that was ruled accidental.

Yet, speaking from her car, 3,000 miles away, the smile in her voice is irrepressible. She can't help it, it seems.

Only later does she allow that the reason she's in California is that, just the day before, her dear Aunt Bertie - the woman who gave her the undivided attention Moore's parents were incapable of when she was very young - has died at 92. She's in California to bury Aunt Bertie, who "was the inspiration for Mary Richards."

"She sent me to dancing school, paid for the lessons, gave me singing lessons, told me I could do it," Moore says. "She encouraged me always to fight on and get what I wanted."

And Mary Tyler Moore got plenty.

Landmark television

She was the darling of two milestone sitcoms - "The Dick Van Dyke Show" from 1961-66 and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" from 1970 to 1977. As Laura Petrie on "Dick Van Dyke" (which was set in New Rochelle), she gave young mothers style, allowing them to ditch the Donna Reed look and embrace capri pants. Go figure.

Later, as Mary Richards, she took on the mantle of the emerging feminist movement as a woman out on her own. Mary Richards was independent, eager but not anxious to meet Mr. Right, and satisfied to have a career until he came along. (When James L. Brooks and Allan Burns were creating Mary Richards, they made her a divorcée, but scrapped that idea because audiences would have thought she had divorced Dick Van Dyke.)

She's clearly proud of her work on those series and notes the change in the treatment of TV stars.

"I never really experienced it the way people today do. When we were doing `The Dick Van Dyke Show' and even up to `The Mary Tyler Moore Show,' you never found television people on the covers of Vogue and Bazaar. ... We quietly went about our work."

And then cleaned up, come Emmy time.

"We were garnering quite a few of those ladies. And we were tickled by it."

She and her second husband, Grant Tinker, started the wildly successful MTM Enterprises - the name behind other television classics, "The Bob Newhart Show," "Newhart," "The White Shadow," "Hill Street Blues," and "St. Elsewhere." But there was a darker side to those times, too. Moore and Tinker were social drinkers and Moore, while not blaming alcohol for the end of the marriage, certainly sees it as a contributing factor. She writes: "The death knell of our 17-year marriage was sounded by ice cubes."

It wasn't until she divorced Tinker and met and married cardiologist Robert Levine (18 years her younger) that she sought treatment at the Betty Ford Center for her alcoholism. She credits Levine's love and support for giving her the strength to put alcohol behind her.

Leaving Mary behind

Three years after "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" ended, in 1980, Moore won a special Tony Award playing a quadriplegic who wants to end her life in "Whose Life Is It, Anyway," a part written for a man. (Tom Conti won the Tony for it the previous season.)

That same year came "Ordinary People."

In her 1996 autobiography, "After All," Moore writes she was star-struck talking with director Robert Redford about working on the film. Couldn't she entertain the thought that Redford was as star-struck meeting her as she was at meeting him?

"No. I don't think so. He is and was, of superstar quality. And the fact that he was the director of the piece and all of that. I used to see him on the beach every once in a while and I would never dare say `hi.' But he did say he felt that way, too - `I didn't want to intrude on her privacy' - but it was from seeing me on that beach that he wondered what the dark side of Mary Tyler Moore was."

Together, painstakingly, they found the dark side, stripping away "Mary-isms" - gestures and body language that audiences knew (and loved). To become Beth Jarret, Mary had to disappear.

In "Ordinary People," for the first time, American audiences saw a side of Mary Tyler Moore they'd never seen. As Beth, a mother without a nurturing bone in her body, Moore was icy, remote and intensely private - a far cry from her darling, sing-song "Oh, Roobbb!" or "Mr. Graant!" lines from her sitcom lives.

It turns out that her father indirectly helped the actress find the character. It was his coolness that she channeled into Beth Jarret.

"That helped me enormously," she says.

She was nominated for an Oscar, which went to Sissy Spacek for "Coal Miner's Daughter."

Her roles are so indelible that her name evokes an immediate picture in the mind - Laura Petrie, Mary Richards or Beth Jarret - but when she looks in the mirror, Mary Tyler Moore sees an activist.

"I see a fairly average woman who is involved with issues - helping to cure diabetes by doing fundraising and making public-service announcements. ... By testifying in front of Congress to get increased budgets for research and the work I do on behalf of animals everywhere. That's who I see.

"It's not Mary Richards or Laura Petrie. It's me, the one who cares passionately about some things. I do care passionately about working and I don't ever intend to give that up. ... The other involvements, finding a cure for diabetes and the animals, that's my passion. That's a visceral thing for me."

A cause celebrity

Moore has been on the front lines of the diabetes fight for years and has made preventing animal cruelty a cause, even entering the fray recently when her apartment building's board sought to remove the nesting place of two Central Park hawks. She took heat from her neighbors for her position.

"I ... don't ... care. Because we put so much pressure on them that they had to rebuild the support (for the nest). And Pale Male has been with his bride, Lola, circling and laying twigs down and she's been organizing them. ... It looks like everything is going to be back to normal. That was one of the most satisfying things I've ever done.

"They'd like to say I did it because they turned down a buyer we had (for our apartment) and that this is my vengeance. Nothing could be farther from the truth and to think otherwise - that it was not wholly out of my love for animals - is to deny a whole lifetime of work on behalf of animals."

Her Millbrook estate is home to many rescued animals - 16 horses, many retired from the NYPD, and her two "go-everywhere dogs," Shadow, a Golden retriever and a schnauzer named Shana.

As the international chairwoman of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, Moore judges the success of her fight in dollar signs.

"That's always the key to research. Last year, they discovered that to cure diabetes is a far more complicated issue than they had realized. ... If we can get enough support, in particular if we can get some federal support behind stem-cell research, there's a very good chance that within all our lifetimes, we could find a cure.

"We believe in using the detritus of an invitro fertilization, those eggs that are scraped out and are not going to be used, they're going to be put in the trash. And we're saying, `Don't do that. Give them to us to help save other peoples' lives.'

She doesn't see the stand as controversial.

"It needn't be. To me, there's no difference from the woman whose child is killed in an automobile accident and has to decide between burying that child whole or donating some of his organs to medical science - to people who need the heart, who need the kidney, who need the liver. I equate it with that. It's a mark of heroism and courage."

Sounds like someone who's testified before Congress.

"Yes, and it always scares me. ... I think I have a good reputation for being a fairly level-headed, down to earth, intelligent human being. I'm not circling Pluto, like some of my colleagues are, so they tend to believe that I've done my homework."

`No-holds barred'

Her homework for her speech Monday at Purchase College took a lifetime. She'll borrow much from "After All" which, she states with pride, she wrote herself. No ghost writer for Mary Tyler Moore.

"It'll be my life. Funny stories that are not in the book and some observations about where I've been and how I feel about myself and women in general. And where I hope to go. It's an uplifting, funny speech."

And then there will be questions from the audience, "no-holds barred," she says. "I'm willing to step up to the plate and answer anything."

If she's asked about her Aunt Bertie, she may recall that her fondest memories of her dear aunt involve a little cabin that she lived in on the weekends.

"She would come and take me away for the weekends. We would roam the hills and pick blueberries and try to bring them back to my grandmother who would make a pie. But most of the time there weren't enough left to make the pie .... They were cozy, quiet times."

After many difficult years, Moore has reconciled with her father, a "rather withholding" man who never felt comfortable being affectionate.

Her dad is still "as strong and straight in the spine as he was when he was 40," she says, and his hobbies are "clipping the hedges around his house. He gets up on ladders and trims the ivy around the top of the wall. He's very active physically."

"Now we're very close and he tells me he loves me every chance he gets," she says, with a little catch in her voice.

And, of course, a great big smile.