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Hats off to an illuminating new documentary about Mary Tyler Moore

Mary Tyler Moore, shown here in 1969, won seven Emmy Awards over the course of her career.
E. Milsom
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Getty Images
Mary Tyler Moore, shown here in 1969, won seven Emmy Awards over the course of her career.

A new two-hour HBO documentary revisits the life and career of Mary Tyler Moore, an actor most famous for playing indelible, very funny and significantly modern everyday women in two excellent TV sitcoms.

Moore won Emmys in the 1960s as housewife and mother Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, and then again in the '70s as single working woman Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In their way, those were groundbreaking roles, but Moore challenged barriers elsewhere, succeeding both on Broadway and in the movies when, at the time, television stars seldom succeeded in crossing over to theater or film.

For the most part, Moore kept her private life private; she had a complicated childhood, three marriages and her own sometimes troubling family issues, including her mother's alcoholism and, eventually, her own. Director James Adolphus' documentary, Being Mary Tyler Moore, manages to touch all these bases — some more deeply than others.

One of the executive producers of this program is Robert Levine, Moore's third husband, who provides all manner of home movies and other material. The results aren't always flattering, but they do illuminate some of the connections between the actor's private life and the roles she played, as well as some of the battles she fought — or chose not to fight — in pursuing her career.

The approach Adolphus takes as director is to have no narration, and to rely instead on vintage TV clips and new audio interviews. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Oprah Winfrey, Phylicia Rashad and others talk about the impact of Moore's TV roles on their own careers — but they're only heard, not seen. The TV clips are more valuable.

One clip shows the first on-screen dramatic role of Moore's career, in which she plays a telephone operator in a TV series called Richard Diamond, Private Detective, starring David Janssen, later of The Fugitive. In the show, Moore's character, "Sam," is always at her telephone switchboard — but her face is never seen, only her legs and the back of her head are visible. Moore appeared in the series for a short time before being replaced; in the documentary, she reveals that she lost the role because she asked for a raise.

As we go chronologically through Moore's career, some of the stops seem too superficial. The Dick Van Dyke Show, created by Carl Reiner, was much more significant than the time it's given here. Even the excerpts from the episodes could have showcased the series — and Moore — much better.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show is treated more skillfully: Clips are chosen from that show that reflect on her relationship with her real-life father, or that contain all the expected highlights. But while MTM Enterprises, which launched with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, changed television completely – and is more than worthy of its own documentary – that's more the story of Moore's second husband, Grant Tinker. He ran MTM, which eventually produced The Bob Newhart Show, Lou Grant, Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. Moore says in this documentary she was never interested in producing or directing — just dancing and acting. But in crafting and approving the concept for her own series, she did launch all those ships.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was as barrier-busting, in its way, as the outspoken humor of All in the Family and the anti-war sentiment of M*A*S*H. All those shows, by the way, eventually ended up on the same Saturday night of programming on CBS — paired with The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show. Then and now it remains the best night of television in television history. And this documentary, Being Mary Tyler Moore, helps you appreciate the show, and the actor, even more.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.