Mary Tyler Moore defined a new type of American woman with her characters in series like The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Sadly, her personal life was full of old traumas.
1. She Kept A Lifelong Secret
Audiences first fell in love with Mary Tyler Moore on the hit television series The Dick Van Dyke Show. But, even as she helped to define a new type of American woman, her personal life was in shambles. From her rocky relationships to her personal tragedies and a dark secret that she nearly took to her grave, these little-known facts about Moore will shock her fans.
2. She Was A Southern Belle
Mary Tyler Moore was born in December of 1936 in Brooklyn, New York. Her middle-class Irish-Catholic parents could have traced their ancestry all the way back to America’s Antebellum South. Moore, however, had her eyes focused on the future and a spotlight that she knew she deserved. Even if it shed a light on her deepest secrets.
3. She Was A Show-Off
Long before Moore’s silver screen debut, she knew she was destined to be a performer. “I knew at a very early age what I wanted to do,” she recalled in an interview. By her own admission, she was always kind of desperate for attention. “I call it just showing off, which was what I did from about three years of age on”.
She wasn’t planning on showing off her traumas.
4. She Was Too Big For The Big Apple
With conservative, middle-class parents and a New York address, Moore was a long way away from the Hollywood spotlight that she craved. Thankfully, Moore’s uncle saw her potential and convinced her family to move to Los Angeles. Moore completed high school in the City of Angels and wasted no time cracking her way into show business—and the tabloids.
5. She Had A Big Tiny Role
Moore’s first “tiny” role was, in fact, a big deal. She made her silver screen debut as the “tiny dancing elf," Happy Hotpoint. Her character appeared in TV commercials during the 1950s show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. It obviously wasn’t a starring role but it was a lucrative one that gave Moore an insatiable appetite for the high life.
6. She Made Mad Money
Unlike the thousands of other Hollywood hopefuls, Moore found success right out of the gate. Or so she thought. For just five days of work as “Happy Hotpoint” Moore pocketed $6,000—that’s more than $73,000 in today's money. However, what happened next proved the old saying true, “Easy come, easy go”. She blew a good thing.
7. She Couldn’t Have Everything
A high-paying gig wasn’t the only thing that Moore landed right out of high school. At just 18 years old, she netted herself another coveted prize: a husband. Her first of three, to be exact. Unfortunately, trying to balance a marriage and a career proved to be harder than she had expected. Something, sadly, had to give.
8. She Married The Boy Next Door
Right out of high-school, Moore married the boy next door. Literally. She married her 28-year old neighbor, Richard Meeker. Far from being an actor, however, Meeker was a cranberry juice salesman. By all accounts, they had a happy marriage at first but, before long, Meeker would leave a sour taste in Moore’s mouth and ruin her career.
9. She Couldn’t Fit Into Her Costume
Just six weeks after tying the knot to Meeker, Moore found herself pregnant. As her baby bump grew, she found it increasingly difficult to slip into her sleek costume and hide her pregnancy. Ultimately, Hotpoint made the decision for Moore and fired her from the lucrative gig. At least she had a family to go home to. For now.
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10. She Had A Beautiful Baby Boy
Moore had to give up the opportunity of a lifetime to have her first and only child, Richard Carleton Meeker Jr—or “Richie” as she liked to call him. Unfortunately, a beautiful baby boy wasn’t enough to save her marriage. In 1962, Moore split from Meeker Sr. For 24 years, she would have a beautiful son as a reminder of her first marriage.
Then she would lose him to a bloody accident.
11. Her Nose Was Too Small
After giving birth, Moore tried to rekindle her career. She posed, anonymously, for album covers and even auditioned for The Danny Thomas Show. According to Thomas, however, “she missed it by a nose[...]no daughter of mine could ever have a nose that small”. But Moore clearly left a big impression on Danny Thomas, tiny nose or not.
12. She Got A Leg Up
Between 1957 and 1959, Moore managed to land a string of uncredited roles. Ironically, the role that gave her a “leg up” in the industry featured, well, nothing but her legs. She appeared as a “glamorous” receptionist in Richard Diamond, Private Detective. She never actually showed her face in the role but it was enough to restart her ailing career.
13. She Made An Impression
Television legend, Danny Thomas, had passed on Moore for his own show. But that didn’t mean that he didn’t see her potential. Based solely on Thomas’ recommendation, Moore received the opportunity that would cast her in the spotlight she had always wanted. He recommended her for the role of “Laura” in a Carl Reiner produced show.
Without intending to, she would make television history.
14. She Nearly Missed Her Big Break
Thomas recommended Moore for the role of “Laura” in Reiner’s cultural phenomenon, The Dick Van Dyke Show. But, while 60 other actresses tried to claw over each other for the opportunity, Moore was lukewarm to the role. She only agreed to go to the audition when her agent practically forced her to. But then she simply had to have it.
15. She Told A Little Lie
Moore quickly fell in love with the character “Laura” and had to have the role. There was just one problem: She was too young. So, Moore did something actresses never do. She lied to the show’s producers about her age and said that she was actually older than she was. It was a gutsy move but one that actually paid off in the long run.
16. Her Lie Paid Off
Moore’s little white lie to the producers of The Dick Van Dyke Show actually turned out to be a good thing for her career. Once the producers found out that she had lied, they laughed it off and turned it into the premise of an episode for the show. But, while the producers laughed it off, her co-stars were not at all impressed.
17. Her Co-Star Was Not Impressed
The Dick Van Dyke Show producers might have laughed off Moore’s little white lie. But her main co-star, Dick Van Dyke, was less impressed. He thought that Moore was too young to play his wife in the series. While he wasn’t necessarily ready to walk off the set over Moore’s deception, she knew that she had her work cut out for her if she was to win him over.
18. Her Talents Won Over Her Co-Stars
After filming a couple of episodes, even Dick Van Dyke had to admit that Moore, clearly, had that special “it” factor. In fact, Moore so impressed The Dick Van Dyke Show creator, Carl Reiner, with her unexpected comedic talents that he wanted to feature her more prominently. Her spotlight-stealing talents, however, didn’t make all of her co-stars happy.
19. She Hogged The Spotlight
Reiner had originally planned to feature another female character on The Dick Van Dyke Show more prominently. He had intended Rose Marie’s character, Sally Rogers, to be the female lead but Moore, with her thousand-watt style and unexpected comedic chops, stole the show. However, her co-star, Marie, was not so keen to share the spotlight.
20. She Had Enemies On Set
Moore always did her best to get along with her co-stars. But she couldn’t help it if they were jealous of her spotlight-worthy talents. While Moore and Rose Marie never came to blows on set of The Dick Van Dyke Show, they maintained a frosty working relationship. In all fairness to Moore, she was hiding a dark secret.
21. She Changed Her Name
Moore’s real-life divorce from Richard Meeker had consequences for her on-screen character in The Dick Van Dyke Show, Laura. After Moore finalized her divorce from Meeker, the show’s writers changed her character’s surname from “Meeker” to “Meehan”. It wouldn’t be the last time that the lines between Moore’s on-screen and off-screen lives blurred.
22. She Fooled Everyone
Even after his original misgivings about Moore and her little white lie, Dick Van Dyke came to like Moore. Maybe even more than audiences knew. Moore and Van Dyke played a married couple so convincingly on-screen that audiences thought they were actually married in real-life. Shockingly, the audience wasn’t totally wrong.
23. She Had On-Screen Family
One of the reasons for Moore’s divorce from Meeker might have been that she was harboring feelings for another man. Moore confessed that she did, at first, have a crush on Van Dyke but they became close in another way. Van Dyke likened their relationship to that of siblings. But Moore did find love through The Dick Van Dyke Show.
24. She Was A Trendsetter
Without ever really intending to, Moore became a trendsetter and role model for young American women. Her character appeared on The Dick Van Dyke Show in capri pants instead of a dress, as all other housewives in television. The small controversy led to an explosion of capri pants on the fashion scene, proving that she wore the pants in the relationship.
But, not in the studio boardroom.
25. Her Pants Were A Problem
The “capri pants controversy” caused quite a stir behind the scenes with the show’s producers and sponsors. While Moore loved the look and thought it was more representative of the modern housewife, the show’s sponsors disagreed. They feared that capri pants would make Moore’s character appear too, shall we say, randy.
26. She Had A Wedgie
In particular, the show’s sponsors voiced their concerns about “cupping under”. In other words, they were worried about the outline of Moore’s posterior in her tight capri pants. She had to work closely with the costuming team to avoid any “riding up” and “cupping under”. But the sponsors supported Moore in other ways.
27. She Smoked Like A Chimney
Moore’s time on The Dick Van Dyke Show fueled one of her worst habits. One of the show’s sponsors, Kent, handed out free cartons of smokes to the show’s cast. Moore, who infamously inhaled them faster than a chimney, couldn’t say no to the freebies despite having told everyone that she had kicked her bad habit.
That wasn’t the only dangerous secret that she was keeping to herself.
28. She Found Love Behind The Scenes
Audiences believed—totally falsely—that Moore and Van Dyke were married. But they weren’t necessarily wrong that sparks were flying behind the scenes. Moore met her eventual second husband, Grant Tinker, while working on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Much like Moore, he had only recently gotten out of a less than spectacular marriage.
Unlike Moore, however, he was ready to get hitched again right away.
29. She Didn’t Have Time To Recover
Moore barely had time to mend her broken heart after her marriage to Meeker ended. The very same day that the tabloids published the news of her failed marriage, Tinker came knocking. He asked Moore out for dinner before the ink on the newspapers was even dry. It was all too soon for Moore and she turned him down at first.
But he was very persistent.
30. She Was Closer To Love Than She Knew
Still recovering from her failed marriage to Meeker, Moore turned down Tinker’s offer of a dinner date. She explained that she thought it was too soon for her to simply move on and that she would need more time. In a very strange turn of events, she would need a lot less time to mend her broken heart than even she thought.
31. She Was Playing Hard To Get
According to Moore, Tinker was very persistent. He simply wouldn’t take no for an answer. After she turned down his dinner date, he asked her, “A friend of mine just gave me his house in Palm Springs. Would you like to go there for the weekend?” Shocked (but still flattered) Moore shot back, “No! You don’t get it, do you?”
Actually, he understood the assignment. He understood it very well.
32. She Was Part Of Tinker’s Plan
Moore had no idea just how persistent Tinker really was. Or how devious. Just one month after their first meeting, Tinker secretly arranged for Moore to go to New York where he was working. Ostensibly, he wanted Moore in the Big Apple to promote The Dick Van Dyke Show but he actually had other plans. Plans to sweep her off her feet.
33. She Fell In Love At Second Sight
Moore never really spilled the beans about just how Tinker wooed her. But he clearly did it in a “New York minute”. Years later, Moore recalled the feeling that Tinker gave her on that trip to New York. She called it “love at first meeting”. She gushed that their love felt “very, very special”. But was it special enough to last?
34. Her Marriage Outlived The Show
Moore and Tinker officially tied the knot in 1962, just as The Dick Van Dyke Show began taking off. Fortunately, while they might have met thanks to The Dick Van Dyke Show, their marriage outlived the series by years. In fact, Moore’s marriage to Tinker proved to be good, not just for her heart, but for her insatiable need for attention.
35. She Got Everything She Ever Wanted
After the success of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Moore teamed up with her hubby, Tinker, to produce The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The show turned out to be everything she ever wanted and even netted her record-breaking Emmy wins. Ironically, Moore’s marriage to Tinker set records of its own. But not the kind of records that Moore could be proud of.
36. She Had A Hot And Cold Marriage
Moore and Tinker had a wonderful marriage—when they weren’t at each other’s throats. For reasons that we may never know, Moore’s and Tinker’s seemingly happy marriage went from hot to cold faster than a tap. Their on-again, off-again marriage was decidedly off again in 1973 when they decided to separate at the height of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Fortunately, they were able to patch things up in time to keep the show on air.
37. She Needed To Separate
After getting “on again”—and then briefly off again and once more on again—Moore and Tinker finally decided that it was time to end their rollercoaster romance. “The separation is best for both of us,” Moore recalled. “We will remain close but not married,” she lamented. Sadly, another failed marriage would be the least of her personal struggles.
38. She Was About To Suffer A Tragedy
1980 turned out to be the worst year in Moore’s life. Not only had she and Tinker finally decided to end their topsy-turvy marriage—this time for good—but she suffered another terrible tragedy. With divorce papers still in the works, Moore was about to receive the worst news of her life. Probably from the last person she wanted to hear it from.
39. She Got A Wake-Up Call
Moore’s now ex-husband, Tinker, called her at five in the morning on October 15, 1980. But he wasn’t looking for a bonus night to cap off their tumultuous marriage. Instead, he was calling Moore with the devastating news about her one and only child, Richie. This time, the troubled young man had made one final—and fatal—mistake.
40. Her Son Missed Safety By A “Hair”
When she picked up the phone, Moore couldn’t have imagined what Tinker was about to tell her. Her beloved (if a little troubled) son, Richie, had passed away in a gruesome and tragic accident. While cleaning his .410 caliber roscoe, the shooting iron misfired because of a “hair trigger”. He was already history before his body hit the bed.
41. She Was Full Of Regrets
For Moore, the untimely tragedy led her to reflect on a life in which she had prioritized her fame over everything. Devastated and despondent, she was full of regrets as she spread her son’s ashes into the Owens River in California. “There is no question about it,” she lamented, “By the time Richie was 5, I had already let him down”.
All she could do was scream at the sky, “You take care of him”.
42. She Was Ordinary
Moore had just completed filming 1980’s Ordinary People when her son passed away. In a twist more cruel than anything a Hollywood director could have dreamed of, in the film, Moore portrayed a mother grieving the loss of her son. Her only consolation for the deeply hurtful coincidence was an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
43. She Was “Snobbish”
Prior to losing her son, Moore had gone to extreme lengths to relate to her character in Ordinary People. Her co-star, Timothy Hutton, described her as “cold, snobbish and uncommunicative” towards him throughout filming. Her real-life response to losing her son so soon after her second divorce was, however, the exact opposite.
44. She Dated Lots Of Men
Oddly enough, Moore reacted to the loss of her son by cutting loose. Throughout the 1980s, she dated a string of men longer than her capri pants from The Dick Van Dyke Show. Throughout 1982, paparazzi regularly photographed her with funny man, Steve Martin. But while she was cozying up to Martin in LA, it looks like she had another thing going in New York.
45. She Needed Heart Surgery
While she was dating Steve Martin—and Warren Beatty and Michael Lindsay-Hogg—the tabloids reported that Moore was also seeing someone else in New York. A much younger, far more virile man. A cardiologist, no less. He was, perhaps, the only person qualified to perform surgery on Moore’s shattered heart. Their love came on so fast, they didn’t miss a beat.
46. She Met The Man Of Her Dreams
Moore met her life-saving cardiologist, Robert Levine, in 1982. He had been attending to Moore’s ailing mother after they had returned from a trip to the Vatican where they held a private audience with the Pope. During the house call, however, it seems that Levine’s real patient was not Moore’s mother, but Moore herself.
47. She Liked Them Younger
Moore and Levine quickly sparked up a romance—and this time, Moore would make sure that it would last forever. There was just one odd thing about these star-crossed lovers. Moore was nearly 20 years older than Levine. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop them from tying the knot in November of 1983. In fact, Levine made Moore feel young again.
48. She Finally Spilled The Beans
Levine was good for Moore’s heart—and not just because he was a cardiologist. Moore’s years of ups and downs in show business had taken their toll on her health. In more ways than one. Since the early days of her career, she had been carrying around a dark secret. Fortunately, Levine inspired her to spill the beans and clean up her act.
49. She Was An Addict
After marrying Levine, Moore revealed a dark secret that she had been keeping her whole career. Unbeknownst to her adoring fans and former lovers, Moore had been struggling with addiction. Shortly after their wedding vows, Moore checked herself into the Betty Ford Center and kicked her addiction. She also managed to do the unthinkable.
50. She Changed Her Ways
Moore had Levine to thank for her dramatic turn around. Not only did she admit to and overcome her addiction to the bottle, but she also broke another terrible habit. Shortly after getting sober, Moore finally managed to kick her three-pack-a-day smoking addiction. But it might have been too little too late.
51. Her Health Fell Apart
By the time that Moore sobered up, it was already too late. The years of drinking and smoking (and personal tragedies) had already taken their toll on her health. Back in the 1960s, her doctors had diagnosed her with type 1 diabetes and her condition only worsened. By 2011, she had to undergo surgery to remove a benign brain tumor.
That was just the beginning of her health struggles.
52. She Stepped Into The Light—The Spotlight
Moore’s health struggles left her with more scars than she would have liked. In 2014, her close friends and family revealed that she was losing her fight against diabetes. Persistent heart and kidney issues had left her nearly blind. Then, in January of 2017, at the age of 80, she followed the light to the end of the tunnel.
The spotlight, that is.
53. She Did Her Own Stunts (Poorly)
Audiences knew Moore best for her comedic acting chops. She was definitely not an action film star. Nevertheless, she insisted on doing her own stunts in 2000’s Mary and Rhoda. It did not end well. While chasing a dog on set, she tried to jump over a barrier. Instead, she tripped and fell, breaking her wrist.
54. She Was A Change of Habit
Moore had more than her fair share of Hollywood romances. But there was one man who, despite his best efforts, just couldn’t get into her capri pants. According to Moore, she was the only leading lady to play opposite the legendary and swoon-worthy Elvis Presley that he didn’t sleep with. They starred together in 1969’s Change of Habit.