Mary Tyler Moore, RIP
January 25, 2017
Mary Tyler Moore died today at age 80. Until a few months ago I was at work on a biography of her (the first in many years), which I had to abandon (or at least put on hold) due to lack of publisher interest. I did interview 40-some people, including Ed Asner, before stopping work. A few observations I gathered from my research: she was an extremely talented, intuitive actress (comedy and drama) with no formal training. Had a great sense of timing. Not all of the MTM episodes hold up today; some are dated or a little silly, but many if not most were very good, and almost all had some belly laughs. TV comediennes like Jennifer Aniston, Tina Fey, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus can trace their roots to her.
She definitely had a dark side that the public and even co-workers often didn't see (it pre-existed the fallout from the death of her son). It was memorably on display in the film "Ordinary People." It sprang from an unhappy childhood that she never fully forgot. She could be difficult to work with, at least in later years, on less successful ventures than her hit shows, and she did not hesitate to criticize the creative personnel whom she felt let her down. She was a complex, multifaceted woman who could veer between sunny and overcast. “I’m like a chameleon in that I take on the colors of success or failure, happy or sad, depending on what’s going on, or how it seems to be going on,” she once explained.
She was quite private and reserved, but had a strong, indomitable streak, as evidenced by her long bout with Type 1 diabetes and shooting herself up with insulin twice a day for years. Many people have Type 2 diabetes, and it's a serious thing, but it is not nearly as debilitating as Type 1.
Her animal rights activism was real, and ahead of its time, like her vegetarianism.
Over the years I've interviewed lots of showbiz people, and I would say she was very much like many of them: someone who became an actor to escape or obscure her private life. Great actors really are a different breed from you and me; they absolutely crave--indeed, can't live without--that attention that comes from being on stage or before the camera. She certainly was that way.
Asked once how she would like to be remembered, Moore responded, “as somebody who always looked for the truth, even if it wasn’t funny.” To her, the truth was that life is a mixture of joy and sorrow. She was, as she described herself, a “devotee of laughter and tears,” and said that if asked to choose between making people laugh or cry she would be unable to do so.
That is why her most famous tour de force as an actress came in an award-winning sixth season episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show entitled “Chuckles Bites the Dust.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihLJrcS8lsg).https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihLJrcS8lsg). Ranked # 1 by TV Guide in its 1997 list of “The 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time,” it is the best thing she ever did. In it, the oft-mentioned but seldom seen character Chuckles the Clown, dressed as a peanut in a local circus parade, is killed when a rogue elephant tries to shell him. The freak accident becomes the source of macabre jokes among the WJM newsroom staff, except for Mary, who fails to see the humor in the clown’s demise and admonishes her co-workers to show some respect for the dead.
But then, at the funeral, she suddenly breaks out in quiet giggles during the reverend’s eulogy at the mention of various characters Chuckles created (“Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo,” “Billy Banana,” “Aunt Yoo-Hoo”). She receives looks of disapproval from the other, somber mourners, including the same people who were cracking jokes earlier. Mary tries to mask her escalating snickers as coughs and throat clearings until, unable to suppress it any longer, she lets loose with loud guffaws. The reverend asks her to stand and, instead of scolding her as we might have anticipated, tells her to laugh if she feels like it—that nothing would have made Chuckles happier, that he hated to see people cry. “So go ahead, my dear, laugh for Chuckles,” he says, at which point Mary bursts into uncontrollable, full-throated sobs.
She didn’t have to choose between laughter and tears after all.