Mary Tyler Moore died today (Jan. 25) at age 80. Moore was a comic genius who a blazed a new path for modern female entertainers when she broke out of her role as the charming suburban wife in The Dick Van Dyke Show to star in her own sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Her role as Mary Richards, a single woman working as an associate producer in television newsroom, was groundbreaking television in the 1970s. At the time, the women’s liberation movement was in full swing. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch—which argued that the traditional roles of the nuclear family rendered women impotent—was an international bestseller. And yet, if you were flipping through the television channels, aside from Carol Burnett, who had her own sketch comedy show, most women were playing roles like Florence Henderson’s good-natured and goofy mom in The Brady Bunch or Elizabeth Montgomery’s ditzy witch married to an advertising executive on Bewitched.
According to Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, the show was ”TV’s first truly female-dominated sitcom.” Seeing Moore at the center of a show that not only featured an independent woman, but a cast of women whose self-definition was tied to competence beyond family life was abnormal.
The show was wildly successful, partly because it spoke to modern femininity and at the same time walked a line for what was acceptable to prime-time television viewers of the era. Seeing women who were comfortable both in the office and in their own skin gave the show’s writers to license to pull off lines like, “I was lying in bed last night and I couldn’t sleep, and I came up with an idea. So I went right home and wrote it down,” uttered by cast member Betty White.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Moore was a seven-time Emmy winner and was nominated for an Academy Award 10 years after the launch of her sitcom, for her portrayal of a repressed suburban mother in the movie Ordinary People. She was a chairwoman of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and an animal-rights activist. And as the song in the opening credits of her show says, she could turn the world on with her smile. Here’s how some of the people she inspired are paying respects on Twitter:
If you’d like to throw a hat into the air, just like Moore did, as a tribute, here’s your soundtrack: