Mary Tyler Moore endured plenty of heartbreak when the cameras weren’t rolling, but despite tragedies throughout her life, the actress never let affliction stop her from experiencing joy and gratitude. When it came to being on set with the icon, Mary was “kind and thoughtful,” Gavin MacLeod exclusively told Closer Weekly before his death.
“Mary was America’s sweetheart,” Gavin shared with Closer shortly before he died on May 29. The late Love Boat actor’s nephew, Mark See, confirmed his death to Variety, telling the outlet his health had declined in recent months.
Gavin portrayed Murray Slaughter on the series, and Ed Asner — best known as the show’s Lou Grant — agrees that Mary was such a wonderful woman to be on set with. “She was a delight,” he gushes in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “It was a pleasure to go to work with her every day.”
Three years after spunky Mary Richards walked out of the WJM-TV newsroom for the last time on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the actress who played her gave a bravura performance as brittle, grieving mother Beth Jarrett in Ordinary People. The intense and deeply nuanced role earned Mary an Oscar nomination.
While inspiring, empowered Mary Richards will always be her most beloved creation, the actress probably could relate more to Beth’s heartbreak. The child of alcoholics, Mary survived two divorces and the accidental death of her only child and faced her own struggles with addiction. “Pain nourishes your courage,” said Mary, who was also predeceased by her two younger siblings under tragic circumstances.
The star, who was born in New York and moved west as a child, had a difficult relationship with her parents, George and Marjorie, because of their drinking. “When one’s mother is an alcoholic, and despite a child’s pleading with her to stop, she continues, you may read that as a cold, selfish act on her part,” Mary wrote in her best-selling 1996 memoir, After All. For a time, young Mary chose to live with an aunt instead of her mom and dad.
At 18, Mary married salesman Richard Meeker, and a year later gave birth to their son, Richie. But Mary’s blossoming career as a dancer and actress doomed the marriage. In 1961, the same year she was cast as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary and her husband split.
Looking back, she felt guilty about the impact it might have had on her son. “By the time Richie was 5, I had already let him down. When he needed me the most, I was busier and even more self-concerned,” she has confessed. In 1962, Mary wed Grant Tinker, an ad agency executive who would go on to found MTM Enterprises with her. The same year, she experienced a miscarriage, and a blood test revealed she was suffering from Type 1 diabetes. Mary started taking insulin injections — as many as three times a day — but despite the severity of her condition, she still drank alcohol.
Like so many children of alcoholics, Mary developed an unhealthy relationship with spirits, drinking every night starting at 6 and often combining it with Valium. “I can recall with sickening clarity that on more than one occasion I played Russian roulette with my car,” she once said. “What’s more, some unwary, innocent people played with me.”
As her career took off with the debut of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970, Mary’s relationship with son Richie grew strained. The boy also didn’t get along with his stepfather. “Grant had the same expectations of children that he had for himself, leaving little room for failure. Richie was almost always falling short,” Mary has said. In 1971, Richie moved to Northern California to live with his father and began his own battle with alcohol and drug abuse.
Of course, The Mary Tyler Moore Show brought Mary success beyond her wildest dreams. During its seven seasons, she won three Emmys, the love of a nation and the adoration of her costars. But after The Mary Tyler Moore Show concluded its history-making run in 1977, Mary’s life weathered more brutal setbacks in quick succession.
Her sister, Elizabeth died at age 21 of a painkiller and alcohol overdose in 1978. Her marriage to Grant faltered, and in 1980, her son, Richie died at age 24 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound that was ruled an accident. Mary refused to forgive herself or get over the loss. “Never,” she once said. “It is a part of you as much as an appendage is always there.”
In 1984, the divorced star checked herself into the Betty Ford Center. “Inside I was scared,” Mary has admitted. “I knew I’d gone over an edge. I didn’t know what to grab for steadiness.” She came away willing to embrace sobriety and with a deep admiration for the former first lady who helped bring alcoholism in women out of the shadows. “[Before Betty], many women felt that being a female alcoholic was a disgrace,” acknowledged Mary, who around the same time met Robert Levine, a doctor who would become her third husband.
Sadly, there would be more heartbreak. In 1992, Mary helped her brother, Robert, who was dying of kidney cancer, attempt to commit suicide. (He survived, but died three months later.) Yet through all of her personal traumas, Mary never lost her spirit or her ability to keep going — much like Mary Richards.
In the years before her death in 2017, she worked tirelessly on behalf of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to find a cure. “I know there is going to be one,” she said in 2002. “It’s just a question of how soon.” A longtime vegetarian, Mary also raised money to help animal causes.
Although she experienced more tragedy than most, Mary insisted she felt blessed. “It’s been a wonderful life,” she has said. “There are very few things I would go back and do differently.”