“Have you heard?” my friend Jeremy sadly asked when I picked up the phone.
Condolence calls pored in as if a family member had died. Millions of us lost a part of our “family” when Mary Tyler Moore, 80, died on Jan. 25 in Greenwich, Conn. from cardiopulmonary arrest, a complication of pneumonia.
Moore, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the 1980 movie “Ordinary People” and in the same year, a special Tony Award for her work on Broadway in “Whose Life Is It, Anyway?” is beloved for her Emmy-winning work as Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-1966) and Mary Richards on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-1977).
These groundbreaking TV sit-coms changed cultural perceptions of women, the workplace and family. Her portrayal of Mary Richards inspired many women in the workforce from actors to journalists.
As a writer and single woman in my 30s in New York, I watched “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in reruns. Mentors and some family members told me they didn’t think I’d be successful as a writer. They worried about my being on my own in a big city. I worried about being alone and whether my dream of being a writer was worth pursuing. Mary Richards, with her persistence, good manners and journalistic integrity, encouraged me to cultivate the stick-to-itiveness and skill needed to be a scribe.
I wondered whether “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” still was relevant. Until my 40-something friend Amy phoned me. “You wouldn’t believe how great the MTM show is!” she said, “It’s so spot-on feminist!”
Moore influenced actors, comedians and television personalities from Debra Messing to Ellen DeGeneres to Geri Jewell. “She turned the world on with a smile. And she was magical to me,” Messing of “Will and Grace” wrote of Mary Tyler Moore on Instagram.
“You were a role model in so many ways,” tweeted gay actor of “Star Trek” George Takei.
“Mary Tyler Moore changed the world for all women,” DeGeneres tweeted.
Geri Jewell, an actress and author of “I’m Walking as Straight as I Can: Transcending Disability in Hollywood and Beyond,” worked with Moore on the TV special “I Love Liberty.” “I had walked off the stage after my performance,” Jewell wrote on Facebook. “She grabbed my hand and said: ‘Not one standing ovation, but two standing ovations…now that’s quite an accomplishment!”
The “Dick Van Dyke” and “Mary Tyler Moore” shows altered our perceptions while making us laugh. Laura, unlike other TV housewives then, had skills of her own. In one episode, a drunk man at a bar harasses Rob. Laura stops the creep with a karate chop.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” revolves around associate producer Mary Richards and her newsroom colleagues in Minneapolis TV station WJM. Mary, single and 30, has moved to the city after breaking up with a boyfriend. The show was transformative – not only for hetero women but for the queer community. Though Mary’s parents appear occasionally on the show, her WJM co-workers and her friends are her family. This helped to reassure LGBT people that our community was our family – even if our biological families were estranged from us. Queer friendly shows from “Sex and The City” to “Girls” are descendants of the MTM show.
The program was one of the first on TV to portray being gay in a non-homophobic, yet laugh-out-loud funny manner. In one episode, Phyllis’s visiting brother Ben, pals around with her frenemie Rhoda. Phyllis exclaims “I’m so relieved” on learning that Ben isn’t going to marry Rhoda because he’s gay.
Richards, though not a firebrand, demanded to be paid as much as a man with her job, told arrogant anchorman Ted Baxter to “shut up!” and went to jail rather than reveal a source.
Thank you, Mary, for your work and for inspiring us to pursue our dreams. R.I.P.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.