The new HBO documentary, Being Mary Tyler Moore, by James Adolphus, which begins streaming in the US on May 26, tells the life story of this very appealing American actress, who represented, to many, an ideal of WASP-y perfection.
But the documentary reaches behind her composed façade to the insecurities that plagued her and seemed to make her especially comfortable collaborating with some of the giants of the Jewish comedy world – and years later, marrying a Jewish cardiologist, Dr. Robert Levine.
Being Mary Tyler Moore offers wonderful glimpses into how some classic TV shows came together.
Although Moore appeared in such dramatic films as Ordinary People, she is best known for her roles in two sitcoms during TV’s first Golden Age, The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s. But she didn’t see herself early on as a comedian and in an interview in the documentary she says she didn’t even want to audition for The Dick Van Dyke Show, because she was so sure she wouldn’t get the part and was intimidated by the series’ creator.
“I was terrified because it was my hero, Carl Reiner, who was the writer/producer of this show,” she says on camera.
Moore loved his work on the 1950s The Sid Caesar Show and Your Show of Shows, as well as other programs considered the high points of TV comedy at the time.
At first, Reiner planned to star in The Dick Van Dyke Show himself, playing the part of a TV comedy writer and family man.
In the documentary his son, director Rob Reiner, recalls, “[My father] had a meeting with Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas and they said, ‘The show is great but we’ve gotta find a new you.’”
And Van Dyke, leading man handsome – and not Jewish – was cast in the leading role.
“It’s what we say,” continues Rob Reiner, “we take the comedy of the Jew and we push it through the goy.”
“It’s what we say, we take the comedy of the Jew and we push it through the goy.”Rob Reiner
Carl Reiner recalls that after auditioning more than 60 actresses, he decided to hire Moore after she had read just three lines.
Onscreen Moore says that she loved working with Reiner, who taught her a great deal about comedy and allowed her natural gifts to shine.
“It was such a platonic love,” she recalls.
“He was my father, my brother, my teacher, my member of the audience for whom I wanted to do the scene well. When I heard him laugh, that’s all I needed...
“Going in,” she says, “I knew I was in with a bunch of black belts in comedy and I had no real experience at it. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
She and Van Dyke talk about how, early on, Reiner wrote an episode that unlocked her comic spark, in which her character impulsively dyes her hair blond and then instantly regrets it. Moore, Rob Reiner and Van Dyke discuss how she broke new ground for women in television by being beautiful, opinionated – and funny.
Moore insisted on wearing pants in many scenes, unlike the TV housewives who had come before her, and Reiner fought the network to allow it, which added to the show’s realism. She won two Emmy Awards for the show.
Mary Tyler Moore after Dick Van Dyke
After The Dick Van Dyke Show ended, Moore performed on Broadway and in the movies but ultimately found her way back to sitcom TV when her then-husband, Grant Tinker, hired the young comic genius, James L. Brooks, to produce The Mary Tyler Moore Show, with Allan Burns.
Brooks, who went on to create the series Taxi and The Simpsons, as well as the movies Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, says, “Every male comedy writer of that time had had a crush on Mary Tyler Moore. She was our dream girl.”
Brooks and Burns agreed to Moore’s request to make her character close to her own persona and they decided that she should be a producer on a local news show in Minneapolis and her character should be divorced. But in 1970, network executives frowned on the idea of a divorced woman as the heroine of a sitcom.
In fact, the executives asked Tinker to fire Brooks and Burns, because, “They had three rules that couldn’t happen on a CBS show at the time: Jews; somebody with a mustache; and a divorced woman.”
Moore says of the series’ initial premise, “Divorce was real but it was not funny. You couldn’t make fun of divorce.”
Eventually, her character was changed to a single woman who is not desperate to get married. Discussing both Moore and her alter ego on the show, Mary Richards, Brooks says, “They each had a great backbone, the character and Mary had a kind of substance that was real, that intrinsic dignity of being.”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show hired a number of female writers, which was unusual then, several of whom were Jewish, among them Treva Silverman, who won two Emmys for the show; and Susan Silver.
After the end of her marriage to Tinker and the tragic death of her son from her first marriage in an accident, Moore married Levine, a cardiologist who had treated her mother.
In the documentary, Levine recalls, “Mary was 18 years older than me when I met her. I was an old man and she was still a young woman.”
The marriage struck many as incongruous, given Levine’s age, 29, and his background – he was from Long Island and his father, Irving Levine, was the national director of domestic affairs for the American Jewish Committee – but friends noted that the two seemed happy.
A friend, producer Manny Azenberg, remembers that he told her, jokingly, at her wedding, “Well, you finally achieved what every New York Jew – or Catholic – mother wanted: You married a doctor.”
All joking aside, they stayed married from 1983 until her death in 2017.