James Werrell

Don’t forget the roots of Moore’s comic genius

Mary Tyler Moore is – justifiably – hailed as a feminist icon, a brilliant comic actor and a model for the single career woman of the 1970s as Mary Richards on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” But a lot of us fell in love with her as Laura Petrie.

Moore, who, after years of illness, died Wednesday at 80, undeniably was best known for her portrayal of the ever spunky, always consoling and rarely discouraged Mary Richards, who played big sister to a crew of characters in a Minneapolis TV newsroom. Those characters ranged from the egotistical nincompoop (Ted) to the steady, witty observer (Murray), to the gruff but ultimately tenderhearted boss (Lou).

The cast also included a mix of female characters: Rhoda, Mary’s neighbor and also single; Sue Ann (the incomparable Betty White), who purred like a kitten but had a serious set of claws; Georgette, Ted’s quiet girlfriend; and Phyllis, Mary’s conniving landlady.

This amazing troupe of offbeat – but somehow also “normal” characters with counterparts in our own lives – made for great TV and unforgettable comic moments. “Chuckles Bites the Dust.” Nothing more need be said.

By contrast, “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” where Van Dyke and Moore played the New Rochelle, N.Y., couple Rob and Laura Petrie with son, Richie, was not nearly so freighted with topical significance or social commentary as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Some might dismiss it as just another popular ’60s sitcom that launched the later careers of its two stars.

But “The Dick Van Dyke Show” broke new ground in its own way. The setup – Van Dyke as one of a trio of writers on “The Alan Brady Show” – was designed to showcase Van Dyke’s sublime aptitude for both verbal and physical comedy, but many, if not most, of the show’s laughs came from the interaction between the Petries at home.

The show expertly mined the day-to-day comedy of domestic life (aided and abetted by goofy neighbors). It was more than just a setup followed by a gag, one right after the other. There was a sense that this was a real family faced with real, albeit exaggerated, dilemmas that became funny, sometimes hysterically so, in the hands of these masters.

(Give credit also to Carl Reiner, who, in addition to playing the tyrannical Alan Brady, produced the show.)

The show occasionally fell into the corny “Hey, let’s find a way to have Dick and Mary do a skit” convention. But most of the time it was fresh, funny and original.

It’s hard to remember now, with so many shows drawing on that early formula, that it was something new. But although it ran only from 1961 to 1966, it plainly made its mark on TV history.

And that was due, in large part, to Mary Tyler Moore. Is it now politically verboten to say that she was irresistibly cute? Please, no, because a significant part of her cuteness derived from her impeccable comic talent. Watch as she works to keep from bursting into tears – as she often did – after some ridiculous misunderstanding with Rob and make it excruciatingly funny.

She also was elegant, which may have come in part from being a professional dancer. She was a suburban dream in capri pants.

She was that and more in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” But we need to remember where it all started.

Later, after “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” ended, she took on serious dramas, most notably as the icy mother in the movie “Ordinary People,” for which she won a Golden Globe award and an Academy Award nomination. But other attempts at non-comedic roles were less successful.

It’s too bad, in a way, that she felt the need to pursue those parts in order to be taken seriously as an actor. In truth, only a minute few have possessed her comic deftness, her subtlety with a line or a movement, her willingness to look silly in the service of greater hilarity.

Those are gifts enough without having to do Lady Macbeth, too. And that’s how we’ll remember her, smiling, ever optimistic, spirited and independent, joyfully throwing her hat into the air – that funny, lovable Mary Tyler Moore.

James Werrell is The Herald’s opinion page editor.