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Mary Tyler Moore: The 'Fresh Air' interview


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Mary Tyler Moore became famous and beloved for the funny and plucky characters she played in the 1960s and '70s on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." She's now the subject of a new HBO documentary titled "Being Mary Tyler Moore," premiering tonight. Here's a clip from it where she describes getting an early boost from a famous TV comedian while on the set of "The Dick Van Dyke Show."


MARY TYLER MOORE: Lucille Ball was our landlady. She owned Desilu. And we'd be rehearsing on the set, and then we'd hear a laugh that wasn't coming from the floor.

LUCILLE BALL: (Laughter).

MOORE: We looked up, and there she was on the catwalk, and she'd be up there watching us, just observing us. And I will never forget. One day she came up to me and she said, you're very good. That was the greatest gift I ever received.

MOSLEY: We're going to listen to Terry's 1995 interview with Mary Tyler Moore. Over the years, she played two extremes very convincingly - the sitcom Mary, the person everyone wants as their best friend, and the cold, steely character she played in the film "Ordinary People." She died in 2017 at the age of 80. At the time of this interview, she had written her autobiography "After All," revealing much about her private life, including her traumatic childhood, her multiple marriages and her alcoholism.

Before we get to the interview, let's hear some of her as Laura Petrie on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." She plays the wife of TV comedy writer Dick Van Dyke, who writes for Alan Brady, played by Carl Reiner. In this scene, Mary has come to Alan's office after she was a contestant on a popular television game show and was tricked into admitting that Alan wore a toupee.


MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) I came to apologize and to tell you personally that I'd like to try to explain.

CARL REINER: (As Alan Brady) Explain what? You got a big mouth.


MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) I do. I know. I know.

REINER: (As Alan Brady) If you wanted a free rotisserie or a dryer, I would have gotten it for you. I would have gotten you a house, a showplace.

MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) Oh, Alan, you don't have to do that. Alan, could I say something?

REINER: (As Alan Brady) You got more to say?


MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) Well, I've been thinking, Alan, and, well, for instance, I think you look very nice without your...

REINER: (As Alan Brady) Hair?


MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) Oh. Well, yes. And well, for instance - now, I'm not saying this just because I'm in trouble, Alan, although goodness knows I am.

REINER: (As Alan Brady) Oh, yes.


MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) But believe me, sincerely, Alan, really sincerely, and you can ask anybody. I have always said that I like you so much better without your...

REINER: (As Alan Brady) It's hair, hair.


REINER: (As Alan Brady) You didn't have any trouble saying it on television.

MOSLEY: Mary Tyler Moore's first big break in show business was playing the Happy Hotpoint elf for Hotpoint appliance commercials broadcast during the "Ozzie And Harriet" show.


MOORE: Happy Hotpoint was the logo of Hotpoint appliances come to life - an elf, a little figure with a shock of blonde hair protruding from her little grey pixie cap that also had ears on it. But I was Happy Hotpoint, and I would, in these commercials, be superimposed on ice cube trays skating, popping out of the washing machine, speaking to Harriet Nelson and saying things like, hi, Harriet; aren't you glad you use Hotpoint appliances, except my voice was higher then, so it sounded a lot more pixie-ish (ph) than it does now. What had happened was that at that time - and this was immediately after graduating from high school - I also got married immediately after graduating from high school. And about a month after that, I was pregnant. And these the commercials were almost impossible to do anymore because I had my breasts bound down to begin with even before I was pregnant because pixies are supposedly of neuter gender. And to try to do that after I was even one month along and certainly into two and three was impossible. And so we had to stop. And I think they just went to straight commercials after that. And I went on to happily have my baby a few months after that.

TERRY GROSS: Well, after you had your baby, you were the voice of the woman in the answering service for the TV detective, Richard Diamond.

MOORE: Right. That was played by David Janssen. And it was - I guess it had started on radio. And one of the successful elements of it was a character called Sam, short for Samantha, who was the answering service woman who took Richard Diamond's telephone messages. This was, of course, predating answering machines, and he would check in with me two or three times every episode. And I would answer in the sexiest imaginable voice, hi, Mr. T. I have some messages for you. And nobody ever saw Sam. You were allowed to imagine her to be your idea, your fantasy of the most gorgeous creature ever, certainly far from the reality of Mary Tyler Moore, who at the time was a fast 23 or 22 years old, freckle-face, all-American girl-next-door type.

GROSS: Now, let me jump ahead to "The Dick Van Dyke Show." What were you told about the character of Laura?

MOORE: Just that she was going to be a wife, a television wife, and that really had its classical parameters and dimensions. And they were established, and they hardly ever varied except as to whether or not the wife was the star of the show, in which case she was the funny one, or if she were the straight man for the male star, and she was then totally supportive. But all these wives were kind of obedient and, you know, representative of the vows to love, honor and obey. They hardly varied from that.

And with Carl Reiner's character - the way she was written, Laura actually had opinions of her own. And while she was asserting herself, she also didn't make Dick Van Dyke look like a dummy. It was a matter of two people - I mean, society's expectations at that point still said, hey. Wait a minute, lady. You only go so far here. But I think we broke new ground. And that was helped by my insistence on wearing pants - you know, jeans and capri pants at the time because I said, I've seen all the other actresses, and they're always running the vacuum in these little flowered frocks with high heels on. And I don't do that. And I don't know any of my friends who do that. So why don't we try to make this real, and I'll dress on the show the way I do in real life?

GROSS: But it wasn't that easy. The sponsors were afraid you'd look brazen.

MOORE: Right. They pointed specifically to - they used a term, cupping under. And I can only assume that that meant my - you know, my seat - that there was a little too much definition. And so they allowed me to continue to wear them in one episode - one scene per episode and only after we checked to make sure that there was as little cupping under as possible. But...

GROSS: Cupping under referring to the fit of your pants...

MOORE: The fit of the pants, yes.

GROSS: ...On your behind.

MOORE: On my behind, right. But within a few weeks we were sneaking them into a few other scenes in every episode, and they were definitely cupping under, and everyone thought it was great.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOORE: And the funny thing is, you know, women liked me. They were not envious of the fact that their husbands had a crush on me. It was OK with them. They were the first to - you know, when I would meet people, they'd say, my husband loves you so much, and he thinks you're so sexy. And this was - it was an odd thing because they were also able to identify with me as a friend, as a girlfriend. There was no resentment, no fear.

GROSS: Yeah, well, I think that speaks so well for the character and your portrayal of her. Why capri pants? Why not...


GROSS: Why not longer pants?

MOORE: There was a store in Los Angeles in Beverly Hills called Jax, J-A-X. And a man named Jack Hanson owned it, and it's now no longer there. And he designed these trousers. And they came in all fabrics, and all price ranges, from cotton to the finest moire silks. And I adored these pants. I loved them. I lusted after them. And I could just barely afford the cotton ones. But when I had a paycheck and it was on a regular basis from, you know, dancing in the chorus, I would make sure that I added another pair of pants to my wardrobe. And those were the design that I wore, along with several hundred other young women who shopped in Beverly Hills then.

GROSS: Now, how did you come up with a voice to say, oh, Rob?

MOORE: (Laughter) I don't know. I guess it began with the cry. The first time I cried was the episode in which Laura bleaches her hair blonde, looks in the mirror and with her friend Millie's help decides she looks more like Harpo Marx than what her goal had been. And so she quickly tries to dye it back before Rob gets home from work. Now, this is a real stretch of the imagination. She decides to dye one half of her head back, not being able to get the other half done before Dick walks in the door. And so she greets him half blonde, half brunette and sobbing.

And I had always been a big fan of Nanette Fabray, who worked with Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar on the "Show Of Shows." And I loved her humor. I loved the way she cried. And so when I was called upon to bring forth the tears in my scene, I'm not sure how much of it was out-and-out stolen from Ms. Fabray and how much of it was just a matter of influence. But there was definitely a cracking in the voice and an inability to maintain a tone and a certain amount of verbal yodeling that took place. And from that came, oh, Rob.


GROSS: Did you do a lot of rehearsing with Dick Van Dyke? Or did you just have to do it minutes before the actual broadcast?

MOORE: Oh, the whole show was done in what they call multiple-camera technique. It's still done today. But back then, we were maybe the sixth or seventh show to use the technique. It began with Joan Davis - not Lucille Ball, as everyone thinks. Joan Davis did a show called "I Married Joan."

GROSS: (Singing) What a girl, what a world, what a life.

MOORE: Hey. Good for you.

GROSS: Yeah (laughter).

MOORE: And then Lucy and several other shows followed. But in that show, it's a little like doing theater that's captured on film. You rehearse for five days. And then on the evening of the fifth day, the audience comes in and the cameras, having blocked their moves and yours lined up with them, you film it from top to bottom in continuity.

So during those five days, it was - at least the first three days, it was very much a matter of rehearse and contribute and attempt things and not be afraid to fail, to make a fool of yourself. Just pick yourself up. And if it didn't happen this time, then the next time you experiment maybe it will. It was a wonderfully supportive, creative environment. And Dick Van Dyke was the most generous and supportive human being that I have ever worked with. And he very strongly influenced my life and my standards when I went out on my own later on.

GROSS: Oh, I have another question about Laura Petrie's look.

MOORE: Yeah?

GROSS: Laura wore a flip.

MOORE: (Laughter).

GROSS: Perfect little flip.


GROSS: Whose idea was the flip? And how were you wearing your hair in real life at the time?

MOORE: In real life, I was wearing it in a flip. But it wasn't quite as back-combed and lacquered as it was on the show. I mean, that thing had so much hair spray on it, you could hang clothes from it.

GROSS: When you say that thing, was it your hair or was it a wig?

MOORE: Yeah, it was my hair. But it was quite thoroughly sprayed and done by somebody else. But my - in person, in between shows, that was the way I wore it. It was just a little limper.

MOSLEY: Mary Tyler Moore speaking with Terry Gross in 1995. She's the subject of a new HBO documentary. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1995 interview with Mary Tyler Moore, who is the subject of a new documentary on HBO, which premieres tonight.

GROSS: Well, let's talk about "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," a show which I still love to watch. Now, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" got started because CBS wanted to build a series around you. And you and Grant Tinker hired people to, you know, write - come up with the idea, write a series. What was the original premise?

MOORE: The original premise was not too different from the one that we ended up pursuing. But I was to be divorced from a doctor. And rather than having - as we ended up doing - having me live with this doctor through medical school and internship and residency and then been dumped, CBS felt that having been divorced was unacceptable from a societal point of view, that people would see nothing humorous in divorce. How could you possibly laugh at a woman who had a broken marriage in her past? And not only that but, my God, they would think you were divorced from Dick Van Dyke, the world's most wonderful, adorable person.

GROSS: That's so silly.

MOORE: Yeah. And instead, what's so odd from a morality point of view is that they found it acceptable that I had lived with this doctor, never married him. And then the relationship broke up. And I went off to start my new life. So I don't know. Morality, I guess, is a very personal thing.

GROSS: The character of Ted Baxter was originally conceived as being someone of your age?

MOORE: Right.

GROSS: And there might be some, like, romantic attraction between you?

MOORE: Exactly. He was probably going to be tall, dark and handsome. And instead, what walked through the door was Ted Knight - short, white-haired and handsome, yes, but not what you'd call a love interest. But the writers - the writer-producers, Jim and Allan, were so open. And I think that's an important part of being a successful artist is being open to new ideas and input. And they saw this man, and they began to think potential. All right, so it isn't our original idea. But, oh, wow, look and feel and salivate over all the juicy stories we could do in another direction. And that's what happened, and they cast Ted.

GROSS: What won them over? Was that big, pretentious voice part of it (laughter)?

MOORE: You know, there was another thing that won them over. It wasn't just the fact that he was pomposity to the nth degree, but that there was a vulnerability and a sweetness to Ted. We found out later that Ted, who was a more out-of-work than in-work actor, had gone out and bought himself a blue blazer and a crest and had it sewn on the pocket so that he would look the part. And everybody just thought that was, you know, real throat-clenching stuff. And, you know, if there had been any doubt about whether or not he was the right one, that clinched it.

GROSS: You write in your book that later into the series, Ted Knight wept because people thought he was really stupid...

MOORE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...They confused him so much with the character.

MOORE: Yes. I don't remember exactly what year it was. I think it might have been - might have been the second year, or maybe - no, I think it was the first year. And people were mistaking him for the character he played, which is so often true for those of us in television. And they would - and of course, both their - the first name was the same - Ted, Ted. And they were calling him stupid and, oh, you're the funniest dumbbell we ever met. And somebody called him a dumb schmuck.

And he came into Jim Brooks and Allan Burns' office - actually, it was only Allan in the office this day - and he was unable to speak. He was just sobbing. And apparently it had just spilled over at that particular moment. He said, I can't go on. I can't do this. I am a dignified man. I have standards, and I am proud. And I'm well-read, and everybody thinks I'm stupid.

And so Allan pulled out all the stops and reminded him of all the great clowns in history who were cerebral and admired and who did great works in life by not only the good works themselves, but by making fools of themselves, by pratfalling, by doing all the dumb things that make people think you're dumb. And he was pretty much convinced and on his way out of the door when Jim Brooks came in and said, oh, Ted, Ted, Ted, Ted, the world's favorite schmuck.


GROSS: Oops.

MOORE: But he had a sense of humor about it, and he got it out of his system. I think that's all he needed to do. I think, you know, that's probably all a lot of us need to do on many occasions of frustration, is just say it, get it out and sort of let the steam out, you know, let the top of the kettle off for a minute.

GROSS: I think one of the real famous moments in television openings and one of the famous freeze frames is you throwing your hat in the air in the opening of the show...

MOORE: Right.

GROSS: ...With the jingle underneath.

MOORE: Yeah.

GROSS: Do you remember that moment?

MOORE: Oh, do I. It was freezing cold. It was in Minneapolis in January, I think, or February. And we didn't know what we were doing. We were just there to grab a lot of footage that shows a young woman's exuberance being in a new city, looking around, gazing at the sights.

And I had in my hand a hat, a little beret that my aunt had given me for Christmas. And I had packed that along with whatever other warm things that I had - which weren't too many because I was a Californian - to go to Minneapolis to do these film spots. And Jim Brooks said, oh, I have a good idea, Mary. Take that hat, put it on your head, and now run into the intersection, and it'll be all right. We'll watch for cars. And throw it up in the air as if to say, this is my town, and I'm celebrating my life that is taking place.

And I did it, and luckily, magically wasn't hit by a car, although I got some pretty strange looks. And in fact, in - I guess it must be in every episode, you can see this one woman in the background who looks at me as if not only am I the world's strangest person, but that she would like to personally lock me up.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOORE: But it's interesting, isn't it, that something that becomes burned in people's impressions and memories can happen so happenstance-ly (ph) out of nowhere. It wasn't written. It was just a spur of the moment idea.

GROSS: So that traffic was the real thing?

MOORE: Oh, yeah, it was. And it's a good thing I didn't have to speak any lines because my lips weren't working, it was so cold. I literally could not form words.

GROSS: I have a colleague here who said, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" made me who I am today - single.


GROSS: And I thought that was particularly funny because, you know, all those years you were playing "Mary Tyler Moore," you had no idea what it was like to be single.

MOORE: Right.

GROSS: You got married as soon as you got out of high school. You divorced, but you were only single for about six months before marrying Grant Tinker.

MOORE: That's right. Boy, you've read the book, haven't you?

GROSS: Yes (laughter).


GROSS: So really, you'd never lived that kind of single life.

MOORE: No, I hadn't. And when Grant and I finally ended our marriage and I went to New York to do a Broadway play, "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" I decided to stay in New York and try to capture my life for myself. I had never been on my own. I had never experienced any of the situations that Mary Richards had lived for the rest of the world every week. And I set about to make that happen for myself.

MOSLEY: Mary Tyler Moore speaking with Terry Gross in 1995. She's the subject of a new HBO documentary. We'll hear more after a break. Also, we remember novelist and essayist and literary critic Martin Amis, who died last week at the age of 73. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Let's get back to Terry's 1995 interview with Mary Tyler Moore. The new documentary "Being Mary Tyler Moore" premieres tonight on HBO. When they spoke, she had just written her autobiography, titled "After All."

GROSS: I'm interested in hearing a little bit about your own family when you were growing up since, after all, you know, you portrayed one of the most famous couples on television on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and then had a wonderful family of friends and colleagues...


GROSS: ...On "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." When you were growing up, your own family was probably what we'd now call dysfunctional.

MOORE: Yeah. Yeah, I suppose so. It's an overused phrase, and I wish we could be a little more specific about it.

GROSS: I agree.

MOORE: My - no, and I didn't mean to criticize...

GROSS: No, no, no. Oh, no, no, no, no.

MOORE: ...You for that.

GROSS: I didn't take it that way.

MOORE: My mother and father were very much the couple that Grant Tinker and I became. They say that you do follow the patterns that you grow up in. And this was certainly true in my case - WASP, repressed, unable to deal with things that are uncomfortable, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, not discussing anything that's ugly or unpleasant and just muddling through. A little of Beth Jarrett in "Ordinary People" came from those people from myself. And I emulated that with Grant Tinker. My father is a very well-educated intellectual, a lover of classical music and classical literature. My mother was an English major. And everything was just perfect in that house, but nobody was talking to anybody.

GROSS: Well, another thing that was less than perfect was your mother drank.

MOORE: My mother was an alcoholic, as I was to become. Her alcoholism took another form from mine. She would, by the dint of determination, be sober for months at a time and then be unable to continue. And all of the problems that had been building up and she had been stuffing under the rug of her emotions would burst forth. And she would start drinking in the day, and she would not stop until somebody found the bottle and took it away and pretty much held her captive in the house until she sobered up. And we were able to plead with her to stop. And then she would try again.

Back then, nobody knew what we know about alcoholism today and the kind of counseling it takes and the kind of sharing and support that is needed to get through this, to break this cycle. My form of alcoholism was much more controlled because I grew up in that very uncomfortable, very sad situation. And I determined that I was never going to do that, never be drunk. And I probably never was really out and out drunk. And I certainly never drank during the daytime. But I wasted a lot of my time. And I forgot a lot because I didn't remember much of what had happened the night before. I got out-of-proportion angry about things that were really unimportant. But that's what alcohol does to you.

GROSS: Did being an actress help you be able to drink and not show the signs of it, help you cover it up?

MOORE: Maybe so. I don't think so, though, because once your speech is slurred, once you lose balance, the - you know, there's no way you can pretend that away. But I paced myself. I never allowed myself to drink any more than the company I was with. And there - that way, nobody could judge me. Nobody could see.

GROSS: Did you drink alone?

MOORE: Yeah, I did. But I was seldom alone, except when I moved to New York. And then I was alone, and then my drinking really escalated.

GROSS: Were you afraid that the press would find out that you drank a lot and it would be...

MOORE: No, because...

GROSS: ...This whole thing? Yeah.

MOORE: ...I didn't think I drank a lot.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

MOORE: That's the amazing part of it. Most alcoholics are in such a state of denial about their condition. They will blame everything but themselves for whatever is going on. I didn't have hangovers, per se, but I found that it was getting very difficult to hold the eyeliner brush steady when I was applying my makeup in the morning. So I thought, well, I guess that's just something that happens when you enter your 40s. And it's a nerve-wracking city, so I'll just have to, you know, take a little more time with it or use a thinner brush - whatever.

GROSS: You stopped drinking - I think it was - what? - the mid-'80s.

MOORE: It was 11 years ago. Yeah. I guess that was the mid-'80s. Yes - '86.

GROSS: You did Betty Ford.

MOORE: Right.

GROSS: Do you think your emotional character changed after you stopped drinking?

MOORE: Oh, there's no question about it. In a way, I sometimes feel grateful that I did have this alcoholism, except that there were so many sad events that were caused by it that I can't wholeheartedly say that. But at least it got me to the Betty Ford Center, where I was able to, with the help of some counselors and a lot of group therapy sessions, examine myself and the way I handled my life and then was able to make major changes. I allowed myself to be imperfect. I allowed myself to make mistakes and laugh at it, to handle my real-life mistakes the way I handled the acting mistakes on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," to think of those as positive steps forward rather than anything to be ashamed of.

GROSS: One of the movies that you've made over the years is "Change Of Habit"...

MOORE: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Which is an Elvis film in which he plays a doctor in the ghetto, and you're...

MOORE: He plays a singing surgeon.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOORE: And I play a nun.

GROSS: A plainclothes nun.

MOORE: A plainclothes nun who was out of the habit. And it was a story about these two dedicated social workers who come together in the ghetto to bring about goodness to all mankind.

GROSS: But you start to fall in love. And at the end, you must choose between God and Elvis.

MOORE: Right. And you see a shot of me in church looking from the Jesus - the statue of Jesus and Elvis playing guitar and then to Jesus and Elvis and Jesus and Elvis and Jesus and Elvis. And you never know at the end who I finally chose. I was Elvis' last leading lady. And he apparently said in somebody's book - he is quoted in somebody's book as having said, there's only one leading lady that I didn't sleep with. And guess what? I know who she is.


GROSS: Right. So what was it like to play opposite him?

MOORE: It was wonderful. And he was nothing like the image that a lot of us have about him. Back then - gosh, what was the year? I don't know - maybe '67 or '68, something like that. He was in great shape, and he was working out. And he was watching his diet, and he was living a good life. I mean, yes, there were a lot of ladies in and out of his trailer, but he was sweet and wholesome. And he knew his dialogue, and he had done his homework. And he was - he had a big crush on me from "The Dick Van Dyke Show" but, you know, in a reserved, from-a-distance kind of way. If he didn't watch himself, he'd call me ma'am. And he was very shy and kind of awkward with me.

GROSS: Now, this was hardly the film that either you or Elvis became best known for.

MOORE: Right. I think it's better said that we triumphed over it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOORE: In spite of this film, we continued.

GROSS: Now, did you regret making the film as it was being made? Did you have a sense that this was not going...

MOORE: Oh, no, I didn't know what I was doing at that time. Movies were new to me, and, you know, they may have not felt as well-written and -directed as the television shows that I had been involved in. But I thought, well, see; that's the difference in the medium. You know, this is a movie. And so they know what they're doing. And as it turned out, they didn't. But that's all right. I really don't regret anything that I've done in terms of my work. If I were writing a happily ever after piece, looking back, sure, there are things that would probably be better if they were erased and maybe not included at all. But I think I've learned from everything I've done, and I can't help but bring those experiences to what I do today.

GROSS: Mary Tyler Moore, thank you very much for talking with us.

MOORE: Thank you. I really enjoyed it, Terry. It's like talking with a pal.

MOSLEY: Mary Tyler Moore speaking with Terry Gross in 1995. She's the subject of a new HBO documentary, "Being Mary Tyler Moore," which premieres tonight. Coming up, we listen to an excerpt of our interview with novelist, essayist and critic Martin Amis. He died last week. This is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.