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Mary Tyler Moore’s Husband Remembers the Woman Behind the Hits: ‘She Made Us Better’

S. Robert Levine tells her tragic yet inspiring life story in a brilliant new HBO documentary

spinner image Portraits and magazine covers featuring Mary Tyler Moore displayed at the Los Angeles Premiere of the HBO documentary Being Mary Tyler Moore
Portraits and magazine covers featuring Mary Tyler Moore displayed at the Los Angeles Premiere of HBO's "Being Mary Tyler Moore" held at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on May 23, 2023.
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for HBO

The excellent and moving new HBO documentary Being Mary Tyler Moore, about the fascinating life and game-changing work of the TV star who died in 2017 at age 80, was coproduced by her widower, S. Robert Levine, 68, who also appears in it. He tells AARP the inside story of Moore’s very public life.

Many fans of her shows with Dick Van Dyke and Ed Asner don’t realize that Moore had an important parallel career — she was a longtime advocate for diabetics, right?

Mary was international chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation for over 30 years. She helped raise billions for research and elevated the understanding of the community and Congress. The Mary Tyler Moore Vision Initiative carries on her legacy, to accelerate the development of new strategies for diabetic retinal disease.

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And she had type 1 diabetes herself.

She was nearly blind — diabetes really stole her joy. She trained with treadmills and ballet to push through the pain of peripheral vascular disease. She had severe neuropathy, painful but also with loss of sensation, so she sometimes wouldn’t be able to figure out where she was in space.

When did it strike?

From age 50. When she got the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, she was escorted out to the podium in advance of the lights coming up because she was nearly blind and could not walk across the stage safely on her own. She never wanted to stop — that was who she was. Her story is about overcoming challenges and obstacles.

You can turn the world on with your smile, even if fate doesn’t always smile on you.

Exactly. You have to learn, to have resilience, that sense of yourself, that purpose. She was always facing the world with a smile, even though she was a tough fighter underneath.

spinner image Mary Tyler Moore holding a pencil to her mouth during a table read for The Dick Van Dyke Show
Mary Tyler Moore at a table read for "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
Photo by Earl Theisen/Courtesy of HBO

Carl Reiner, creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which made her famous, told me, “She could be a pain in the ass, but it was always for the art.” He said it was a compliment — she was ambitious and full of ideas, even though she had less experience than anyone in the distinguished cast.

Even as a young woman who’d never done comedy, she had a commitment, what people today call telling your truth. She was the first woman to wear pants on TV, which was controversial in 1962. Mary said that she was a young housewife and she didn’t know anyone who wore flowered frocks and high heels to vacuum.

spinner image Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show and Moore as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie during a portrait session for "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (left) and Moore as Mary Richards in the first episode of the "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
CBS via Getty Images (2)

What’s the difference between her roles as Dick Van Dyke’s Laura Petrie and Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, who scared and scandalized executives because she was single, dated, yet didn’t depend on a man?

Laura was a modern woman, an equal partner for her husband with a point of view — and pants. Laura was a transitional figure, Mary Richards a transformational one. She controlled the show, in partnership with creators Jim Brooks and Allan Burns. They hired women writers and directors. She didn’t stand on a soapbox about issues, but her character made them accessible to a broad mainstream audience — she made the movement less frightening. What’s compelling about Mary Richards is, she smiles but is always ready to fight for what she believes. You wanted her to be your best friend, but when she needed to push back and tell people how she felt, she did not shy away from it.

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Like Lucille Ball, who produced Star Trek as well as her own shows, Moore’s MTM Enterprises produced a lot of important shows, right?

Hill Street BluesWKRP in CincinnatiRhodaPhyllisBob Newhart, St. Elsewhere. They created MTM Enterprises as a place for creatives to basically take control, and Mary protected them.  

spinner image Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore sitting together in a scene from the film Ordinary People
(Left to right) Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore in "Ordinary People."
Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

She was amazing in roles quite different from her two famous ones. She received a Tony Award for 1980’s Whose Life Is It Anyway? and an Oscar nomination for best actress playing against type as Beth Jarrett, a scary, cold mother in 1980’s Ordinary People.

Beth Jarrett is a little bit of a reflection of her, but substantively a reflection of her father. The best way I can help you understand Mary’s dad is, when her brother John was painfully dying of metastatic kidney cancer in his 40s at Christmas time, we all stood at his bedside, his deathbed. Mary’s dad said, “John, I wish I could tell you that I loved you. But I just can’t.” So Beth was scary, and a very authentic characterization. Mary grew up internalizing some of his difficulty in expressing love.

But her mom wasn’t like that.

Her mom was kind of the opposite, a party girl. Everyone’s favorite alcoholic. It created a chaotic, unpredictable home environment. Mary succeeded because her aunt and her grandma would swoop in when things got tough, bundle her up and take her to their house. They’re the ones who enrolled her in the school of dance. Immersing herself in the performing arts was what saved Mary.

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She was absolutely hilarious as a somewhat nicer but over-the-top mom in the 1996 film Flirting With Disaster.

Just before shooting the final scene, Mary was hospitalized for a week — she almost lost a toe. So we broke her out of the hospital and brought her to the set. We had an IV of antibiotics running, which we kind of draped and hid while they were shooting. The scene didn’t wind up in the movie. What I’m trying to say is, even with a risk of amputation, when director David O. Russell said, “We gotta get this last shot,” she showed up.

She had a steeliness.

Exactly. The three phrases that I use to describe Mary are: her spirit a beacon, her smile eternal, she made us better.

I like the scene in the documentary where somebody close to her was reminiscing about Mary’s life and work when she was near death, and Mary said, “It feels great to remember!”

Yeah, and that’s how you feel watching it. It feels great to remember.

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