But the hat she may be best remembered for is the iconic tam she tossed in the air during the opening sequence of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” in the 1970s. Her portrayal of the thirty-something, independent, career woman, Mary Richards, served as a role model to a generation of women and earned 29 Emmys for the show. On Sunday, Moore, 75, will be given a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Reuters spoke to the actress about her career and what Elvis was really like.
Your television career spans over five decades starting with your 1955 appearance as the “Happy Hotpoint Appliance Elf,” in a commercial. What does receiving the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award mean to you?
Receiving a lifetime achievement award from anybody who wants to single me out as deserving of it is a wonderful honor. It pleases me to know that it would make my dad awfully happy, I know that.
You worked on Elvis Presley’s final feature film “Change of Habit,” in 1969. So what was Elvis really like?
He was a supreme gentleman; a Southern gentleman. He was very willing to do what the director wanted and to play off me and other people in the cast, as was I in return. It was a thoroughly wonderful experience.
Your TV husband, dick Van Dyke, is presenting you with the lifetime award. Is he as funny off screen as he is on?
Very much so. He’s a man of quick humor and thoughtful ponderance. And he was my biggest fan. He would encourage me because it was the first time I had done any real comedy. And I said to Dick, “I’m so nervous,” and he said, “Mary, you just do what your instinct tells you and don’t be afraid of moments where you think you’ll look like a blubbering idiot. Just do it to the best of your ability and you’re going to be fine.”
What would Mary Richards be doing today?
I think she would be married and the mother of two or three children and also a business woman, and triumphing at that.
What path do you think your life would have taken if you hadn’t become an entertainer?
I always wanted to be a dancer. That is what I really wanted in my life. I will go to my grave having received so many awards thinking of myself as a failed dancer rather than a successful actress.
Do you have a favorite episode of The Dick Van Dyke or The Mary Tyler Moore show?
Of course, there’s the “Chuckles” episode where Mary can’t stop laughing during the funeral service. A groundbreaking episode from “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was when Rob and Laura are convinced that there was a mix-up at the hospital and they were given the wrong baby when their son Richard was born. So after inviting the other couple who they believe have their son over to discuss the dilemma, the doorbell rings, and there stands this couple, a man and woman, both black, carrying a three-day-old baby. And we had no idea how this would be received, especially since we had a live audience there and no one had ever portrayed black people that were middle class at this time in television.
How do you think TV has changed since The Mary Tyler Moore Show?
Carol Burnett and I were just speaking about this very topic in between rehearsals for Betty White’s 90th birthday party. We both agreed that if we had the opportunity to do our shows today, it wouldn’t have been possible because of the outrageous costs of producing those shows and the union demands. It just would have not have happened. We both thought that was a real tragedy.