Yes, Mary Tyler Moore was as nice as her most famous character, Mary Richards. She really was. When she passed away on Wednesday, my first thought was not just of a gifted actress, but also of a genuinely kind person who, on two very different occasions, left a lasting impression on me and my family.
My twin brother, Jeremy, and I weren’t old enough to have seen The Mary Tyler Moore Show during its original run (1970 – 1977), but, thanks to ubiquitous reruns in the early to mid-80s, we quickly became fans. Our mother had introduced us to it, and the three of us watching it together (my parents had divorced years earlier) became a family ritual.
And so, in 1986, when Jeremy and I (who were then 16) heard that Mary was going to be appearing on a local Boston talk show Good Day to promote her new play, Sweet Sue, we asked our mother if we could try to be in the audience. But there were a few obstacles: We lived almost 30 minutes away from the TV station; we had no transportation (our mother has MS and is in a wheelchair); and the live show was airing on a school day. So what did any mother do when her two sons who never got in any trouble, really wanted to see the star of their favorite show? Well, she did what any cool mom would do: She approved our plan to miss school that day (and by “miss,” I mean “skip”) and take a cab for about $30 each way to station.
So off we went, not sure if we’d even be able to get in without tickets. The cab dropped us off outside the station, but there was no line, or anyone at all, for that matter. Before we could figure out what to do, a black limo pulled up to the curb. We couldn’t believe our luck! When Mary stepped out of the car with, I assume, a publicist, we gingerly approached her. But at first we didn’t know how we should address her. “Mary?" No, that seemed too presumptuous. “Ms. Moore”? That didn’t quite seem right either. So we just both started making a bunch of “M-m-m-m” sounds until one of us finally got out the words to ask her if we could take a picture with her. The publicist quickly declined the request, but Mary stepped in and said it was totally fine with her. Yay! (It was the days before selfies, so I actually had to ask the publicist to take our picture.)
I still remember standing next to her, with our arms carefully around her, noticing how thin she was. We thanked her profusely as she went inside, and then headed in ourselves to see if we could get seats in the audience. Unfortunately, we soon discovered one major problem: There was no audience for the live broadcast. Or even seats. We didn’t realize, since we were normally at school, that Good Day didn’t have a live audience anymore. But just then—and I’m not exaggerating the timing of this—Mary happened to swoop by, and said to a show staffer, “Isn’t there a way these nice boys could see the show?” And just like that, we were escorted into a hallway outside the taping studio. As we waited, we soon realized that we were diagonally across from the green room where Mary was waiting. (We couldn’t see her but we could hear her.) The publicist, who was in the doorway and had now dropped her guard, started chatting us up and so we told her how we had even skipped school to see Mary.
“Did you hear that, Mary?” the publicist said. “They skipped school to see you.”
“Oh, really?” she said, with a laugh. “I don’t know if they should be rewarded for that!”
Soon we all went into the studio and Jeremy and I watched the interview off to the side of the cameras. When the interview ended, she again came over to us, with a warm smile on her face, which gave us one last chance to again thank her. As she exited the studio with her back to us now, just like a sitcom scene, she raised her arm and said, “I admire your gutsiness!”
For years we told that story. About the way Mary Tyler Moore herself made that all happen. About how nice Mary Tyler Moore really is. But then something came up that truly underscored that sentiment.
In 2003, my mother was in a car accident while in a wheelchair van. She was not strapped in properly and so she fell to the floor of the van, bruising her legs. Very thankfully, she was not seriously hurt but doctors were not proactive enough in the care of her left leg. She developed a severe infection and the lower half of her leg had to be amputated. It was a horrible time. She was physically okay, but I felt so awful for everything that she had to go through. Now, I thought, she’s constantly going to be thinking about this, and having to talk about this with well-meaning people who ask her how she’s doing, over and over again. I wanted to give her something happy to think and talk about. And so I wondered if maybe Mary might be willing to have a phone call, a very brief one, with my mother to cheer her up?
By this time, I was working at TV Guide and so contacting a celebrity was a fairly straightforward task for me. I wrote her publicist (a different one) a letter, explaining the situation and respectfully asking if my request was possible. A few days later I got a call from Mary’s assistant, Terry. “Mary read your letter and she’d like to work something out.”
We made an arrangement that, in a couple of days, I would call Mary’s office with my mother already conferenced in. When I told my mother about this special upcoming call, she could hardly believe it. “Really?! Wow…Okay…Wow!”
A few days later, we got on the phone together for what I thought would be literally two-minutes. Instead, Mary chatted with my mother for a leisurely 10 minutes. They talked about the old show of course, but also Mary reuniting with Dick Van Dyke for a PBS production of the play, The Gin Game. (“Do you play gin?” I remember her asking my mother, as if they had just met at a dinner party.)
At one point, I jokingly interjected, telling Mary that it was thanks to her that my brother and I had reference for my mother’s flip hairdo, which my mother has kept throughout the years (up to present day, actually). “Now, just stop that, Danny!” Mary said, laughing and going along with my joke but “standing up” for my mother as well. In momentary solidarity, my mother also added a “Thank you!” to Mary for putting me in my place. After a few minutes, I said to Mary that we didn’t want to take up any more of her time, but Mary quickly said that she wanted to share a story with us. As she told us about a recent physical challenge of her own, it occurred to me that clearly she had come prepared with this story for the phone call. In other words, she had really thought it through about how she could help in the most effective way possible.
A few minutes after we all hung up, though, her assistant called me back and asked for my mother’s address because Mary wanted to send her something. A couple of days later a handwritten note, with a handwritten address on the envelope, arrived in the mail for my mother. It said, “I enjoyed speaking with you. What a lot of positive energy I got from you! Keep it up!! Please know that I’m thinking of you. Fondly, Mary Tyler Moore.”
“Fondly”—that’s how so many of us will always think of her. And also, like so many, we will miss her very much.
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