PHOTO BY THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Actress Mary Tyler Moore starred in two of television’s most beloved comedies in the 1960s and 70s.
By STEVE KRAUSE
“A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”
That was the tagline for Chuckles the Clown from WJM-TV in Minneapolis. The poor guy died on Oct. 25, 1975, under bizarre circumstances. A rogue elephant tried to shuck him while he was dressed as a peanut during a circus parade.
Such is the stuff of legends. That television episode turned out to be the single funniest in one of the medium’s most forward-thinking, ground-breaking comedy series. And the reason it achieved its absolute fullest potential is very simple: the acting of Mary Tyler Moore.
It was as if everything she had done to that point, from starring as a dancer/actress in movies such as “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” to “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” to her self-titled ’70s sitcom that depicted an independent woman seeking her place in the world, prepared her for that one episode.
While everyone else in the WJM newsroom tried to outdo each other making lame jokes, Mary tried in vain to jerk them back into being in a more somber mood. Then, when the minister at Chuckles’ funeral tries to deliver a fitting eulogy, Mary can’t stop laughing. And then, when the minister invites her up to share some of those funny Chuckles stories, she bursts into her trademark Mary Tyler Moore cry — the one she perfected while starring as Laura Petrie on the Van Dyke show. Nobody could cry like Mary. Not even Lucy.
Anyone who came of age in the ’60s undoubtedly watched the Dick Van Dyke show, which must have been one heck of an apprenticeship for Mary Tyler Moore, who was at least 10 years younger than any of the other stars in the cast save for her TV son Richie. She had to hold her own with the likes of Van Dyke, Carl Reiner, Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie, Richard Deacon and Jerry Paris. She mastered whatever difficulties might have come from that with flying colors — so much so that after the show went off the air in 1966, she went on to became the star of her own iconic show in the ’70s.
And what a show it was. It wasn’t just that the MTM show was about a young, single woman looking to “make it after all,” but there she was, going toe-to-toe with the likes of the gruff Ed Asner, among others.
One of the more memorable episodes in the series was the first, when a frightened Mary goes in to talk with Lou Grant (Asner) about the job in the WJM newsroom. Lou listens to her, and says, “kid, you have spunk.”
Mary thinks this is a compliment and smiles sheepishly, in that combination pride/humility persona she perfected (along with the cry), and thanks him.
Then, Lou says, “I hate spunk” and, of course, she is crushed.
Mary — and Mary — made it. The show, which lasted until 1977, is by now a piece of Americana, and the image of her throwing her hat up in the air while walking along the streets of Minneapolis is as iconic as the show itself.
Any TV blow-dried, know-nothing anchorman from the era was immediately “Ted Baxter,” all workplace tyrants could be likened to “Lou Grant,” and just about every two-faced, smile-at-you-while-knifing-you-in-the-back co-worker, male or female, is “Sue Ann Nivens” (Betty White). Mary Tyler Moore held her own with all of them.
She never stopped growing. When the time came to play a dramatic role, in 1980’s “Ordinary People,” she did it with enough icy detachment that it was chilling.
Her success on the screen masked the difficulties she had off camera. A diabetic since the age of 33, she suffered from many of the health problems that stem from the disease.
Mary Tyler Moore died Wednesday at the age of 80. I don’t know if there’s anyone in television today who approaches her in terms of what she could do, how smoothly she did it, and how much of an impact she had on people.
The word “legend” gets tossed around a lot, not always appropriately. In this case, though, the word fits her perfectly.