Wednesday, January 25, 2017

In rerun heaven, she'll always turn the world on with her smile

Cast members of The Mary Tyler Moore Show,
reunited in 2013 on TV Land's Hot in Cleveland.
l-r, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Mary Tyler Moore,
Betty White, Georgia Engel
She could turn the world on with her smile, and she will continue to do so for decades and generations to come.  TV icon Mary Tyler Moore died today at age 80, after years of declining health due to her lifelong fight with diabetes.

It was actually through the fight against diabetes that I first met Mary, at a Juvenile Diabetes Walk in New York City, a cause to which she was incredibly dedicated.  An animal lover, Mary also co-hosted with Bernadette Peters the "Broadway Barks" benefit each year, a beautiful event celebrating and adopting out animals in Manhattan's Shubert Alley.

But it was my husband Frank DeCaro's encounter with Mary that I'll always remember.  In 1997, Mary had appeared on Rosie O'Donnell's talk show, and talked about her desire to reunite with Valerie Harper in a new show, to be called "Mary & Rhoda."  At the time, Frank was writing a style column for the New York Times, and so, while searching for a topic for his next piece, he decided to write about what Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern's lives would look like in the late '90s, twenty years after we'd last seen them on our screens.

The day after the column ran, Frank's home office phone rang; the voice on the other end said simply, "Please hold for Mary Tyler Moore."  A few seconds later, he heard, "Hello, Fraaaank?" in that famous quaver.

Valerie Harper and Mary Tyler Moore
attend the taping of NBC's 90th Birthday
Tribute to Betty White, January 2012.
Mary invited Frank to lunch, and of course he eagerly agreed.  But on the appointed date and time, all hell broke loose.  A storm raged in Manhattan, and bricks were falling off a building on Madison Avenue.  President Clinton was in town, causing a giant case of gridlock.  And despite trying to get from Chelsea to the Upper East Side restaurant by both subway and cab and then on foot, Frank arrived over an hour late. (Remember, this was JUST before we all had cell phones in our pockets.) Would a TV icon be furious with him -- or would she be gone?

To Frank's delight, Mary had had company for the hourlong wait -- surprise lunch guest Valerie Harper.  I first met Frank by reading his memoir, A Boy Named Phyllis, about growing up in surburban New Jersey and, yes, adopting the nickname Phyllis, after Elton John's supposed sobriquet for Rod Stewart.  The ladies understood his lateness, and they all three -- Mary, Rhoda and Phyllis -- proceeded to have a lovely lunch while brainstorming what the show could be.

Mary & Rhoda ended up going through several sitcom script iterations before being reconceived as a TV movie for ABC -- which scored high ratings.  Mary and Valerie never did reunite again on their own, although they both did join their former Mary Tyler Moore Show castmates Betty White, Cloris Leachman and Georgia Engel in a 2013 episode of Betty's TV Land sitcom, Hot in Cleveland.

Mary leaves behind an incredible showbiz legacy, from her iconic roles on landmark sitcoms The Dick Van Dyke Show and her own self-titled, groundbreaking '70s hit to amazing performances in films such as 1980's Ordinary People and one of my own silly favorites, 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie.

The Television Academy's Archive of American Television project is an amazing resource, interviewing our TV legends about the span of their lives and careers.  Here, a link to Mary's full two-hour interview with the Archive, conducted by Diane Werts in New York City in 1997.  At the end, she discusses just how she'd like to be remembered.

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