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Mary Tyler Moore’s big career break came in 1961 when she was cast as Dick Van Dyke’s wife Laura on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Here Van Dyke, now 91, remembers his friend of six decades, who died Wednesday at age 80….
She was 23 years old, gorgeous of course, and had a kind of mid-Atlantic accent. She sounded a little bit like Katharine Hepburn. My first question was, “Can this girl do comedy?” After that I said, “She’s a little young for me.” I got to be on hand and watch her grow into the talent she became. She was just the best.
I don’t know what made her comic timing so great. On Dick Van Dyke, we had Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie, both of whom were old hams and had razor-sharp timing, and mine wasn’t bad either. But Mary just picked it up so fast. She had us all laughing after a couple of episodes. She just grabbed onto the character and literally turned us into an improv group, it was so well-oiled. That show was the best five years of my life.
I remember when we all won Emmys. We were nominated — or at least I was — for the first years and there was no comedy category. We lost to The Defenders. It wasn’t until 1966 that they added a comedy category, and that year we all won. My God, we were excited. We had also been cancelled!
The funny thing was, after the show went off the air, Mary had the reputation of being the wife, the woman who brings the coffee. So we cooked up this special called Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman where we showed off everything she could do, and that somehow changed CBS’ mind and that’s how she got The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It fell into the hands of great writers. It was a milestone, that show. It kicked off an awful lot of enthusiasm in a lot of women. She got it moving! Thank God she ended up with Carl Reiner and those writers, who just understood her and what she did. The episode when Chuckles the Clown died? She was at the funeral and she was crying and suddenly, as she recalled him, she began to laugh. It was a performance that had me on the floor! It was just masterful comedy.
In 2012, I got to present her with her SAG Life Achievement award. She had moved to upstate New York and was already beginning to succumb to the diabetes, so outside of talking to her and her husband Robert, I didn’t see her unless it was an occasion like the SAG Awards. That night, she had trouble seeing, so they had to bring her onstage in the dark. For me, it was a payoff moment. A culmination. Outside of her family, I don’t think there was anyone more proud of her than I was. Just to watch her grow was such a thrill for me. She left an imprint on television comedy.
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