Herbie J Pilato Gives Us the Lowdown on Laura Petrie and Mary Richards


by Herbie J Pilato

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, there were two kinds of people:  Those who loved watching Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS, 1961-1966), and those who loved watching Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977, and which was officially titled just Mary Tyler Moore).

Moore’s married Mrs. Petrie and single Ms. Richards were and remain monumental and groundbreaking television characters of their respective eras.

In real life, Moore has seen her share of personal struggles.  She has battled Type 1 diabetes, admitted to excessive plastic surgery, and has married three times.  Her first husband was Richard Carlton Meeker (1955-1961), with whom she had a son named Richie who committed suicide.  She partnered with second spouse, Grant Tinker (1962-1981), and together they incorporated MTM Enterprises, a powerhouse TV production company responsible for a slate of hits in the 1970s and 1980s (including The Bob Newhart ShowHill Street Blues, and other successes including RhodaPhyllis and Lou Grant—all three spun-off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show).  But after their two-time failure to resurrect the variety show format in her favor (with a CBS skit comedy show in 1978 simply titled Mary, which was revised in 1979 as The Mary Tyler Moore Hour), their marriage crumbled.

Fortunately, she’s been more happily married to her present partner, Dr. Robert Levine, since 1983.

In the fictional world, more specifically on The Dick Van Dyke Show, the multi-award-winning Moore was spouse to Van Dyke’s amiable Rob Petrie, and became one of television’s first single-minded wedded women.  She loved and respected her husband, who was a TV writer for the fictional Alan Brady Show (starring Van Dyke Show creator Carl Reiner), and she adored their TV son Richie (coincidentally named after Moore’s real life son, and played with earnest innocence by Larry Matthews).  But she was different from the traditional small-screen wife and mother of the day.  As Laura, Moore donned stylish Capri pants, and retained an independent spirit.  She and Van Dyke’s equally-impeccably-dressed Rob Petrie were the intelligent, stylish couple of the then-modern age, presented in the mold of John F. and Jackie Kennedy.

On The Dick Van Dyke Show, Moore was the lead female character (the second was Rose Marie’s Sally Rogers who, along with Morey Amsterdam’s Buddy Sorrell, worked as co-writers with Rob for The Alan Brady Show).  On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Moore was top banana.On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Moore performed opposite a cavalcade of charismatic stars which later starred in the aforementioned spin-off shows of their own: Valerie Harper played Richard’s best friend and upstairs neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern, and Cloris Leachman was Phyllis Lindstrom, Mary and Rhoda’s landlord.  At work, Richards was the associate producer at the fictional WJM-TV channel in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Her co-workers included writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin Macleod, later of The Love Boat), Ted Baxter (Ted Knight, future lead of Too Close for Comfort), Betty White (The Golden Girls), and Ed Asner, who played Mary’s boss, Lou Grant (another spin-off character, this time leading an historic one-hour drama series of the same name, the first of its kind to spawn from a half-hour sitcom).

In either case, Moore’s pleasant, All-American sweetheart persona shined through.  Every red-blooded American heterosexual male wanted to marry Laura Petrie and/or wanted to date Mary Richards.  Laura was the ideal wife and mother model for every female home engineer.  Mary Richards picked up where Marlo Thomas’s Ann Marie left off on That Girl (ABC, 1966-1971), when it came to being the fictional visual voice in the Women’s Liberation Movement.  Wives and moms of the 1960s aspired to be like Laura Petrie, and single women were empowered in the work force because of Mary Richards.  In fact, Oprah Winfrey has touted for years the media-based premise of The Mary Tyler Moore Show as the main inspiration for her initially pursuing journalism as a career.

For the mainstream viewer, both Laura Petrie and Mary Richards were—and again. Remain—appealing to the eye, heart and mind.  The Laura/Mary persona was kind as all-get-out, and witty and bright in all the right places and at all the right times, but she was never intimidating, rude or off-putting.  Both were consoling, yet daring; charismatic, yet approachable. Moore played Laura and Mary as welcoming without being a doormat.  The actress somehow single-handedly created a dual tour de force of relatively opposite yet very similar characters.

Before and after she portrayed Laura Petrie and Mary Richards, Moore delivered a delightfully versatile dance of characters, roles and parts for the big screen as well as small.  Just prior to playing Laura, Moore portrayed David Jansen’s alluring, yet facially unseen secretary with the attractive legs on Richard Diamond, Private Eye (CBS/NBC, 1957-1961), and she was the “Happy Hotpoint” girl in a series of TV commercials.  Following her five-year run on the Van Dyke series, Moore dabbled on Broadway with stage productions like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in 1966,  and made several motion pictures, including Thoroughly Modern Millie (with Julie Andrews in 1967) and Change of Habit (with Elvis Presley in 1969).  She reunited with Van Dyke in 1969 for a CBS TV variety special titled Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman, which convinced the network’s executives that she deserved to lead a sitcom of her own.  Following her seven-year-stint on now legendary self-titled sitcom, Moore returned to the live stage in 1980 with the drama revival of “Whose Life Is It, Anyway.”   That same year, she delivered an Oscar-nominated, heart-wrenching dramatic performance as Beth Jarrett, the grief-stricken mother in Ordinary People (directed by her idol Robert Redford), and in other motion pictures such as Six Weeks (1982, co-starring Dudley Moore).

Throughout the 1980s and mid-1990s Moore once more returned to television and CBS with two different one-hour variety programs (the aforementioned Mary, 1978; The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, 1979), two additional half-hour comedies (one also called Mary, 1985-1986, the other Annie McGuire, 1988-1989), and New York News (1995), a one-hour drama in which she seemed to be portray a character that echoed and combined Mary Richards and Lou Grant with-a-rigid-twist (and flaming red hair!).

Into the mix, Moore has appeared in a long list of highly-rated and critically-acclaimed TV-movies and mini-series such as Run A Crooked Mile (1969), First, You Cry (1978), Heartsounds (1984), Just Between Friends (1986), Lincoln (1988), Blessings (2003), and Pay-Back (1997), the latter in which she re-performed with two of her former sitcom co-stars Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Dennis Arndt (Annie McGuire).

In 2000, the actress reunited with her former Mary Tyler Moore Show co-star, Valerie Harper, for a TV-movie and backdoor pilot (which did not go to series) called Mary & Rhoda, in which both actresses resurrected their most famous television roles.

In 2002, she reunited with the entire cast of iconic sitcom for a CBS special documentary called The Mary Tyler Moore Show Reunion, and the cast did the same with a surprise visit to The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2008.

In 2003, Moore reunited once more with Van Dyke for the PBS special based on the play, “The Gin Game,” and in yet again in 2004, this time reprising her Laura Petrie part for the CBS/TV Land special, The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited, and once more with Van Dyke on The Rachel Ray Show in 2011.

In 2012, Van Dyke presented her with the Lifetime Achievement Award on the televised Screen Actors Awards Show.

In 2013, Moore further reconnected with Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, and Georgia Engel, the entire female cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for a group guest spot on White’s hot TV Land hit, Hot in Cleveland.

According to a recent cover story on Moore published in Closer Weekly Magazine, her close friends Valerie Harper and Betty White said she has almost completely lost her sight due to what Harper called “the ravages of diabetes.”  In general, Moore has not made public appearances for the past three years, not even in advocacy against diabetes, and her presence has been sorely missed.  As Closer Weekly reported, one mother of a child with diabetes said n Facebook, “We need a cure for Type 1 diabetes.  When someone who has advocated for those battling and living with this disease, someone who is well known and successful, isn’t immune to devastating effects, then you know a cure needs to be found.  Best wishes to Mary for her health.”

Overall, whether she is best known as Laura Petrie or Mary Richards, or any of her other countless stage, film or television characters of interest, Moore is never less.  Despite of her numerous personal and health struggles, the adored and adorable actress continues to face her life and career celebrations and challenges with candor, courage, and class, all of which will forever define Mary Tyler Moore as an original.

Herbie J Pilato is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about him HERE. This article originally appeared at TWJ Magazine.