A new HBO documentary celebrates a dazzling comedy star whose early years left her with a lasting sadness
In the years since Mary Tyler Moore died at age 80 in 2017, no one has forgotten the whimsy, style and charm of her performances on two landmark CBS sitcoms: The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–66) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–77). She was, as the latter show’s theme song suggested, a star “who could turn the world on with her smile.”
But there was so much that Moore’s smile concealed — a dysfunctional childhood, personal tragedies, failed marriages, alcoholism and health problems (including the diabetes that eventually left her nearly blind) — until she found enduring romance with her third husband, cardiologist Robert Levine, 68.
This brilliantly accomplished but deeply complicated Mary is explored in the fascinating, revelatory HBO documentary Being Mary Tyler Moore. “You think you know and love her,” Levine tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story, “but you don’t know everything.”
Retracing the actress’s troubled early years growing up in Los Angeles, Being Mary Tyler Moore will only make you love her — and pity and understand her — more. “She architected a path to her survival,” says Levine, “overcoming the toughest of circumstances.”
Her family environment was “chaotic,” he says, often so unruly and unhappy that she went to live with more caring relatives. Her mother, Marjorie, was what Moore called an “entertaining alcoholic,” drinking heavily for weeks at a time. The addiction would repeat itself in all three of Marjorie’s children, including Mary’s younger brother John, who died of kidney cancer in 1992, and her baby sister Elizabeth Ann, who died of a drug overdose at age 21 in 1978.
And it would affect Moore’s only child, Richie Meeker, who accidentally shot and killed himself at age 24.
George, her father, was handsome and funny but also a drinker who was unable to express affection. When John, by then a recovering alcoholic, was dying, George said to him, “Son, I wish I could tell you that I loved you, but I just can’t.” Moore would later use her memories of this emotionally remote man to shape her Oscar-nominated performance in 1980’s Ordinary People, in which she played a woman unable to express grief for drowned son.
Young Mary was a dedicated student of dance — “She said she would always believe herself to be a failed dancer as opposed to a successful actress,” notes Levine — and she later said she hoped her performances might win her praise from her parents.
By the time she was a senior at Immaculate Heart High School, she realized she could earn that admiration on a much greater scale. She wrote in her yearbook: “The world is always ready to welcome talent with open arms.” First, though, she escaped her parents at 18, marrying 28-year-old Richard Meeker, a cranberry sauce sales manager. At 19, she gave birth to Richie.
Moore had no lack of ambition when it came to career — “She was a fighter underneath,” says Levine — and she became a major TV star only four years later: She was 23 when she was cast as homemaker Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. “She was wonderful, right out of the box,” says Carol Burnett.
But those emotionally barren years before fame would haunt her through her greatest public successes, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Her second marriage, to TV executive Grant Tinker, slowly collapsed under what she called a “cloud of silence.” She spent decades, as she put it, “reaching for a drink to soften the blows”—even though alcohol can be ruinous for a diabetic patient’s health. “In case there’s any doubt about the acute state of my alcoholism,” she wrote in her 1995 memoir After All, “I can recall with sickening clarity that on more than one occasion I played Russian roulette with my car.”
Moore would, in time, speak courageously about her alcoholism (she never drank again, says Levine, after rehab at the Betty Ford Center in 1984) and campaigned to raise awareness about diabetes. (After her death, Levine founded the Mary Tyler Moore Vision Initiative to prevent diabetic retinal disease. For more information.)
But the suffering she experienced with the death of son Richie — that, she could barely articulate. She was never comfortable discussing it even with Levine, the Manhattan cardiologist to whom she was married for more than 30 years and who considered it his role and privilege, he says, “to be her protector and care for her and hold her.”
That tragedy, he says, she kept locked up “in a dark room. She didn’t want to touch that pain.”
For more on Mary Tyler Moore, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.
Being Mary Tyler Moore premieres Friday at 8 p.m. ET on HBO and will also be available to stream on Max.
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