By Brad Darrach Kathy Mackay Maria Wilhelm Sue Reilly
December 15, 1980 12:00 PM

Robert Redford is so beautiful that some moviegoers assume he must be dumb. Ordinary People, the first film he has directed, should scuttle that notion. Adapted from the novel by Judith Guest, the movie looks deep into the life of one American family. What it sees there is a condition that afflicts the planet—a failure of feeling, a loss of heart. The theme evolves through three remarkable performances. Donald Sutherland plays the father; Tim Hutton the son; Mary Tyler Moore the mother, a role that has since found a tragic echo in her own life. Along with talent and technique, each brings to the film a special experience in its endlessly fascinating subject.

Mary was America’s TV sweetheart. A vanilla madonna. A wisp of WASP with merry brown eyes and a smile that lit up a continent. Leggy, sincere, capable, vulnerable, single and over 30, she played Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and became for millions the New Woman of the ’70s, making good in a (fairly) good job, living alone and (sometimes) loving it.

Then in 1977, when the show closed, Mary’s career faltered. She tried two new series, both variety programs, both resounding thuds. Critics who had called her the finest comic actress of the decade concluded sadly that sitcom was all the lady could do.

Yet in barely two years—a time of turmoil that led to the suspension of her 17-year marriage to MTM Enterprises boss Grant Tinker—the adroit comedienne has transformed herself into a powerful dramatic actress. In First, You Cry, a TV movie based on the Betty Rollin best-seller, Mary gave a deftly realistic interpretation of a woman trapped between alternative disasters: cancer or mastectomy. In Whose Life Is It Anyway?, her first straight role on Broadway, she took an audacious double dare: With minimal theater experience, she followed a brilliant British actor, Tom Conti, in the difficult role of an accident victim paralyzed from the neck down. The run was a personal triumph—at season’s end she won a special Tony Award. Now, in Ordinary People, the new Mary has given her most subtle and disturbing portrayal to date.

Mary plays Beth Jarrett, a charming, well-to-do woman in her early 40s who can cope with the butcher and the baker but not with her own feelings. She doesn’t like things that get out of control. When her favorite son drowns in a boating accident, she swallows her grief—and along with it most of her other emotions. Taking his mother’s withdrawal as blame for his brother’s death, her surviving son goes into a spin and tries to kill himself. The mother withdraws even further.

Mary’s performance is a classic piece of layered revelation, and she feels a great debt to Redford. He kept watch on her MTMannerisms—the shrugs and smirks and deadpan stares that were Mary’s shtik-in-trade as a comedienne. Most important, he helped her release what he called “the dark side of Mary Tyler Moore.” He said at the time: “There’s a lot of Beth in Mary. And she was very courageous to allow that part of herself to be used. She just went off one cliff after another.”

The dark side is in many ways the more interesting side of Mary Tyler Moore as, at 42, she moves into middle life. She has a warmth, generosity and downright decency that in Hollywood are as rare as neckties. But no woman with Mary’s record of accomplishment can be simply a slice of white bread. She has a self-starting drive to achieve that would leave poor Beth in the dust, and if control is not her passion it is nevertheless something of a hobby. For 13 years she has controlled an acute case of diabetes, giving herself insulin injections twice a day. On the job she is a workaholic, a self-critical perfectionist with a ready fund of anger that translates easily into energy. She also feels a polite mistrust of the human species and more often than not hides big feelings behind small talk, melting the world with a smile so glorious that nobody thinks to look behind it.

Right now she needs that smile desperately. Just as her dreams of a new life and career were coming true, a nightmare intervened. In a horrifying coincidence, a variation of the senseless disaster that broke the mother in the film struck Mary in real life. Apparently by accident, her only child shot and killed himself.

Richie was born when Mary was 18. Stifling in the strict Roman Catholic atmosphere of her parents’ L.A. home, she had married a 27-year-old food broker named Richard Meeker. Richie came along 11 months later. He was a plump, lively, warmhearted boy. By the time he was 3 Mary had steady work in television. When he was 6 she and his father were divorced. Six months later she married Grant Tinker, who had four children from a previous marriage. When the brood was together, it was a happy, noisy house, but both parents have expressed a guilty sense that their work too often claimed time and attention the young ones needed. “I demanded a lot of Richie,” Mary once admitted. “I was responsible for a lot of alienation.”

In his teens, Mary has said, Richie “rebelled against my affluence” and went to live with his father, by then a TV station manager in Fresno. At Bullard High, Richie was looked up to as a natural athlete and free spirit. After graduation he moved to L.A., got a job in the loan department at a Wells Fargo bank and for the next two and a half years lived quietly with an attractive young woman named Kelly Wilson. “Richard was happy and well-adjusted,” Kelly says. “Normal. On weekends I’d weed the garden while he worked at his tool bench. He loved fishing. He was just a big kid who never really wanted to grow up.” During this period Richie and Mary finally made peace. “Richard loved his mother,” says Kelly. “He was very proud of her. We’d go over to Mary and Grant’s house for dinner, and they’d come to ours.” Her eyes shining, Mary told an interviewer: “I have a new friend.”

About a year ago Richie suddenly got serious about an acting career. He had backed off from the business because he didn’t want to rise by his mother’s apron strings, but now he began chasing auditions. In midsummer he was offered a small part on CBS’ The Dukes of Hazzard, but the actors’ strike quashed the deal. Then he tried out for The Young and the Restless, and to keep close to the action took a job in the CBS mailroom.

Two months ago Richie and two young women rented a small house together in central L.A. The relationships were platonic. Janet McLaughlin, 22, was an old friend of Richie’s from Fresno and a journalism student at USC; Judy Vasquez, 21, was a friend of Janet’s and a student at Cal State, L.A.

On the evening of October 14 Richie came home from work with a big grin and his arms full of groceries. He was excited about his new “castle,” as he called it, and ran on to Janet about how he was going to fix the place up. They had a pillow fight, he massaged a cramp in her foot, then helped her put up some bookshelves. At one point he said he had called his mother in New York to tell her about the house. He also told Janet about his latest conquest. Richie, says Janet, “was the perpetual ladies’ man, ham and egotist.” When Janet trudged off to her room to do homework, Richie put on his stereo headphones and sat banging away at imaginary drums.

About 10:30 p.m. Judy came home, made a cup of Ovaltine and went into Richie’s room. What happened then was described in the Los Angeles Times by Daniel Puzo, a friend of Judy’s who regularly writes for the newspaper’s food section. Richie was sitting on his bed, Judy reported, and while they talked about this and that, he reached for a small shotgun that stood against the wall. It was a .410 “snake charmer,” so called because hikers carry it to kill rattlesnakes. The gun had no safety catch. A few weeks earlier, according to Janet, it had malfunctioned: The action of closing the breech had tripped the trigger.

The rest of the Times story, picked up by the national press, was a melodramatic account of how Richie played shotgun roulette in response to a question about a girlfriend in Fresno. With the gun pointing at his head, he said “She loves me…she loves me not,” at each statement closing the breech with a click. Janet, who was in a room 30 feet away and overheard everything, reports that Richie said nothing of the kind. She does not know how the gun went off, but it did, at 10:45 p.m. At the hospital Richie was pronounced dead. He was 24.

His mother wept all through the funeral. “I have never seen Mary so distraught,” said an old MTM colleague, Gavin MacLeod. Mary, Grant, Meeker and his second wife took Richie’s ashes to a desolate, beautiful area of the Sierras that he had loved and scattered them in the Owens River.

Three days later Mary was back in New York. She was a wreck. At first she kept to her suite at the Waldorf Towers, seeing only close friends like Hope Lange and Elaine May. But she wasn’t just hiding; with the help of her psychotherapist she began to deal with the tragedy of Richie’s death. To keep going, she kept busy. More than 6,000 letters of condolence had come in. Hour after hour Mary sat and answered them in her own hand. Looking ahead, she decided that the sooner she got back to work the better. She hired a story editor to find her a new movie—drama or comedy, just so it was good—and as the scripts arrived she read them.

Gathering strength, Mary began to take long walks. One morning she fished out her leotards and went to dance class. Her appetite came back with a vengeance. She began to show up at her favorite restaurants. She had lunch with Redford and, confident her blood sugar was under control, polished off a huge hot fudge sundae at Serendipity. She saw Chorus Line for the fourth time and for Thanksgiving flew back to L.A. to be with her parents. As yet, though, no parties, no men in her life, but one by one she is picking up the threads. “Mary is like a flower blossoming,” says Gavin MacLeod. “She’s going to go on.” Richie’s father agrees. “Mary is a fighter. That’s what makes Mary…Mary.”

Donald Sutherland: Impossible to miscast

“A director is a sculptor,” Stanley Kubrick once remarked, “and actors are clay.” Not necessarily. Some actors are rock, some Jell-O. In directing his three principals, Redford sculpted in three notably different kinds of human material. It says much for his skill that in each case the character created is a living, breathing work of art.

Donald Sutherland provided the most malleable material. In 46 uninhibited years, Sutherland has acquired a reputation as a flake. He came to fame as Hawkeye, the madcap medic in the movie version of M*A*S*H. In the early ’70s he lived with Jane Fonda and dabbled in radical politics in his native Canada. He also has a maniac imagination, a disembottled genie that can flow into a thousand forms. “I’m a queer crowd,” he says with an edgy laugh, “and we all get into the same bed every night. It can be scary.”

As a result, Sutherland has often been asked to play whacked-out characters in freaked-out films like The Castle of the Living Dead. But there is another Sutherland: a sober citizen who has lived for the last nine years with a French-Canadian actress named Francine Racette. He is also the father of four children he sees or talks to by phone almost every day of his life. “For years,” says Sutherland, “I’ve been dying to play a character like the father in Ordinary People. The guy next door. The types I’ve played live next door to no one, or if they did move into the neighborhood, everyone else would move out.”

Sutherland the craftsman is a sober citizen too, and after 36 movies he is altogether at home in the medium. Pride, he has learned, goeth before a flop. “In movies, it’s not my character I’m creating. It’s the character in the director’s head. My job is to figure out what he wants and give it to him.” With such willing material, Redford could create rapidly—often wordlessly. Instead of telling Sutherland what he wanted, he would silently change the position of a hand or the tilt of his head and ask him to read the line again. “And the words would suddenly come out right!” says Sutherland. “It was just extraordinary!”

Tim Hutton: A credit to his dad’s legacy

Tim Hutton required much deeper interaction. At 20 he knew less about acting than Mary and Donald—and less about himself. He was the son of an established movie actor, Jim Hutton (Period of Adjustment, Walk Don’t Run), but his parents were divorced when Tim was 3. For the next 12 years, while growing up with his schoolteacher mother in Connecticut and later in Berkeley, he rarely saw his father. Then when Tim was 15 he reconnected with Jim, and a friendship formed that grew stronger by the year.

Jim helped Tim get his start in an acting career that was quickly crowned with success: the role of the younger brother in ABC’s Friendly Fire. Father and son viewed the TV drama together—in a hospital room. Jim had terminal cancer. “He got very emotional,” Tim recalls. “He told me it was a good piece of work.” In June 1979, Jim died at 45. “I was totally numb,” Tim says now. “I kept thinking, ‘But we just got to know each other!’ ”

Four months later Ordinary People went into production. Walking wounded, Tim reported to the set. “I guess it was better that I was working,” he says. “I just had to deal with all that pain and grief.” Redford helped him. They took long rambles together, talking about the boy in the film. Gradually Tim transformed some of the agony of loss he felt at his father’s death into the correlative agony felt by the hero of Ordinary People. “Bob Redford just understood everything,” Tim says. “It’s hard to explain how secure you feel working with someone who knows your struggle and who knows how to help.” Nine months later Hutton saw Ordinary People for the first time in a private screening room. “I was all by myself,” he says, “and I just sat and cried.”