The actress, who died Wednesday at 80, broke boundaries with her 1970 sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show — portraying a single career woman out to “make it on her own” (as the show’s iconic theme song described), without the help of a man. It was a progressive concept that marked a shift in popular and political culture and would go on to influence a generation of women, inspiring them to visualize a world for themselves outside of simply being a wife and homemaker.
Winfrey was one of those women.
The media mogul told PEOPLE after the TV legend’s passing, “Mary Tyler Moore majorly influenced my life and career. I respected and admired her business acumen, her passion and compassion for all life, and most importantly, the values espoused through her storytelling. I thank her for being a light that shined so brightly, it let me see myself in her.”
When the 62-year-old former talk show host learned of Moore’s passing, she broke down, Entertainment Tonight reports.
“It’s the first time I would recall a public figure in recent years passing — and we’ve lost so many people recently – where I actually sat down and shed tears about it,” Winfrey told to ET‘s Nancy O’Dell by phone on Wednesday.
She choked up on the call too, thinking back to when Moore surprised her on her talk show in 1997, according to ET.
“The moment she surprised me on that show was a life-changing moment for many reasons,” Winfrey said. “First of all, it’s the time I coined the ugly cry. And I went into double, triple overtime. After that I said, ‘Never again!’ I called all my producers together — and that was in 1997 – I said, ‘Never again will I be surprised on the show, and if I’m ever surprised on the show, it will cost whoever produced that show their job.’ Because I could not speak, hear or think!”
Winfrey praised Moore as a “role model” for “young, single women in the workforce.” She said it was Moore who first inspired her to pursue her own career.
“Mary Tyler Moore first gave me the idea that you can own your own show and produce it. She was the one,” Winfrey said.
“She paved the way through storytelling for women,” Winfrey added, “and was a value system for women without even knowing it. So, her legacy will live on in ways I know the creators of [The Mary Tyler Moore Show] never even imagined.”
The Weight Watchers spokesperson also recalled the time she spent watching the show. “When I was a young reporter in Nashville, the thing I did every Saturday night was watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Winfrey said. “I wanted to be like her. I saw myself in her, so much so that for a long time, I wanted to work in Minneapolis because I thought Mary actually worked there.”
The two met many times, including that 1997 surprise. “What I’m grateful for is that, in my lifetime, I was able to share with her what her presence in television had meant to me as a young, growing, aspiring reporter,” she said.
Asked what Moore’s legacy will be, Winfrey referenced the CBS sitcom’s iconic theme song.
“Her legacy is going to be every life that she touched through that show. Her legacy is going to be her smile,” she said.