Mary Tyler Moore will always be remembered as Mary Richards, a character who's been a touchstone to generations of women, but the actress, who died Wednesday at the age of 80, did her best not to be frozen in time as that spunky Minneapolis news producer.
I grew up watching Moore, first as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, and then as The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Mary Richards, who could turn the world on with her smile. But by the time I encountered her in the mid-1990s, those characters had long ago left the building, and Moore was telling reporters that she was rejecting the familiar, and wanted "to go to work nervous."
TV gave her plenty to be nervous about. Moore, a seven-time Emmy winner and an Oscar nominee for Ordinary People, had had her fifth post-Mary Tyler Moore Show series, New York News, canceled by CBS a few days before we spoke by phone in December 1995 about her autobiography, After All, and about a cable TV movie, Stolen Memories: Secrets from the Rose Garden, in which she played a woman with developmental delays.
"These days, my work has to challenge me, it has to make me dig and scrape," she said of Stolen Memories.
As for New York News, in which she'd played an editor, "I'm beginning to wonder if we aren't all born with a certain number of series genes that have to be fulfilled, and I was just born with an overload of them," Moore said.
"When you look at it realistically, the odds are so against you" in doing a television series, although it might have helped, she said, if CBS hadn't scheduled her show against Seinfeld.
Still, she'd been less than happy when Grant Tinker, her former husband and business partner, had told a reporter he couldn't understand why his former wife didn't "rest on her laurels, which are considerable." Moore called him on it.
"He apologized," telling her to "think of it as an intended compliment gone awry," she said. Tinker -- who died this past November at the age of 90 -- may have been happily retired, she said, but "I love my work. I would never want to be without it."
Illness had kept her from it in recent years. Her most recent TV gig was as a guest star on TV Land's Hot in Cleveland in 2013. Last summer, she sent her former co-star, Valerie Harper, in her stead to the Television Critics Association's awards to accept the group's Heritage Award for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Harper read a funny, profane letter from Moore: "Does Heritage mean we're all getting old? If so, all you critics can [expletive] off."