By People Staff
May 04, 1989 12:00 PM

“Who can turn the world on with her smile? Who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all worthwhile?” Those were not multiple-choice questions, because there was only one possible answer: Mary Tyler Moore. As Mary Richards, assistant producer at WJM, a Minneapolis TV station dogged and dominated by rampant egos and incompetence, she became “our Mary.” Men wanted to marry her; women wanted to be like her or, maybe, to be her. Everybody already knew Mary was charming and funny, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show let her talents flower in full, often incongruent colors. She could meet her barbarous, decent lunk of a boss, Lou Grant (Ed Asner), and fix him with an unsteady gaze—no mean feat. Encountering egomaniacal anchor boy Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), she could display patience at its wit’s end. She could bat her eyes ferociously or glare tenderly at news writer Murray (Gavin MacLeod), comfort raucous, single neighbor Rhoda (Valerie Harper) with acerbity or listen to the rabid frothings of friend Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) with appalled sympathy. She was so generous that she even enabled Asner, Knight, MacLeod, Harper, Leachman and Betty White (who played WJM’s home-show hostess) to go on to other successful series.

But The Mary Tyler Moore Show did more than reveal its star’s ambidextrous talents and make her terribly rich as the chairman of MTM productions. It also changed TV’s portrayal of women. In the days of June Cleaver, the little woman’s place was firmly in the kitchen, dispensing advice, smiles and chocolate chip cookies in equal measure. Mary’s own first big role had been as a phone operator for David Janssen on Richard Diamond, Private Detective in 1959, and such was the prevailing view of working gals—yes, Virginia, they were called that then—that only her hands and great legs—gams—were ever shown. As Rob Petrie’s Laura on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Moore had played a deeply suburban housewife who looked luscious in stretch pants, performed winningly at the PTA, cried prettily and tried to keep her husband from finding out she had scratched the new car. The old mold was first cracked in 1966, the year The Dick Van Dyke Show folded, with That Girl, starring Mario Thomas as an aspiring actress out on her own in the Big Apple. Still, Mom, Dad and wimpy beau Donald were always there, ready to help her out of her cute messes—that girl cried nearly as often as Laura Petrie did—and it was clear that, sooner or later, she was going to give up this actress nonsense, get engaged to her dopey boyfriend, then settle down, Which is precisely what she was doing when the show got canceled.

Then along came Mary Richards—single, independent, thirtysomething, wrapped up in her career and not pursuing a man. For millions of working single women, she suddenly made it all seem worthwhile. The show won 27 Emmys during its seven years and turned June Cleaver into as remote a figure as Stepin Fetchit. It is very likely that Maude, the Golden Girls, Louise Jefferson, Alexis Colby, Cagney, Lacey, Kate, Allie and even Oprah would not have come along so soon without Mary—either Mary.

Born in 1937 in Brooklyn, where her father was a utility company executive, the future MTM set her cap early on to become a star: She studied dancing from childhood and got auditions while in high school. One of her first TV roles was as Happy Hotpoint, a unisex elf who danced around stoves and other shiny appliances in commercials, and her legs carried her on to Richard Diamond. Soon after, she auditioned to play Danny Thomas’s daughter on Make Room for Daddy. “With a nose like yours, my dear,” said Thomas, “you don’t look like you belong to me.” But a few years later, when he was casting The Dick Van Dyke Show, Danny put out a call for “the little girl with the three names and the smile.” Just so.

Moore has had her share of both success and trouble in recent years. Her sister died of a drug overdose, and her son (by first husband Richard Meeker, a CBS sales rep) accidentally shot himself to death. She and Grant Tinker, her husband of 18 years and president of MTM productions, split in 1981; two years later she married cardiologist Robert Levine, 15 years her junior. In 1984 she checked into Betty Ford with an alcohol problem complicated by diabetes. She scored in Broadway’s Whose Life Is It Anyway?, the TV movie First You Cry and the feature film Ordinary People, but her TV career has fizzled with two failed variety shows and two failed sitcoms, the last just this season. Don’t people want our Mary back? Surely they do. Television is a voracious, fickle medium that must consume talent to survive and it tends to throw away those it has loved; but not all of them, not forever. More than any other TV performer, Mary used charm to win us: She became America’s sweetheart. And nobody ever forgets a sweetheart who tossed her hat up in the air.