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January 26, 2017 09:44 AM

Candice Bergen became a feminist icon playing the title character in the acclaimed 1988 sitcom Murphy Brown. For ten seasons as the progressive, unwed female newscaster, the 70-year-old actress tackled groundbreaking issues like abortion, single motherhood, breast cancer, and medical marijuana — inspiring national conversations (and in the case of Dan Quayle, conservative outrage).

But Murphy Brown would have never existed if it weren’t for another fictional independent female working in the newsroom: Mary Richards.

The character brought to life on The Mary Tyler Moore Show by the late Mary Tyler Moore revolutionized how the world saw women. Richards was a career-oriented, single thirty-something — out to “make it on her own” (as the show’s iconic theme song described) without the help of a man.

Generations of females flooding to the American workplace now had a popular example of a woman who found fulfillment in something other than simply being a wife, mother, and homemaker.

On Thursday’s Today show, Bergen looked back on path paved by Moore, who died Wednesday at 80.

“Mary Tyler Moore really opened the door for women not defined by a relationship, for women trying to have a career,” she said. “And it also opened the door for quality television, cause the writing was so exceptional and had so much depth and was character driven. Mary was an icon unlike any other.”

While Murphy Brown was know for dealing with hot-button topics for women, the Mary Tyler Moore show did it first. Just look at Richards’ fight for equal pay in the workforce and her unapologetic use of birth control.

“I think they were very important,” Bergen said, reflecting back on the topics covered. “And I think for young girls growing up watching those characters on television, it gave them a sense of entitlement they didn’t feel up until then that they had. I think Mary Tyler Moore really made women feel entitled to a career and to be defined without a man.”

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The character of Richards also had vulnerability — something Bergen credits with the skill Moore brought to the role.

“Mary Tyler Moore played her sort of like blithe spirit,” she said. “She sort of danced — she made it look easy, but she wasn’t.”

“She was very much, I believe, an instinctive actress,” Bergen continued. “And she also worked wonderfully in the ensemble of that show. Because that was a unique ensemble. And they all — most of them — went off to have spinoffs. So the characters had real potential to be developed.”

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Bergen was working overseas when The Mary Tyler Moore Show was first airing, and didn’t watch the show until she would begin work on Murphy Brown.

“I really was completely influent in sitcoms until Murphy Brown,” she confessed. “And then they said, ‘You want to see the yardstick of a great sitcom? Watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’

Looking back, the Emmy winner doesn’t think her sitcom — which, like Moore’s, aired on CBS — can even hold a candle to The Mary Tyler Moore.

“She’s her own stratosphere,” Bergen said.

Today airs weekdays mornings beginning at 7 a.m. ET on NBC. Episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show are now available on Hulu.

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