Mary Tyler Moore died last week at the age of 80 and was memorialized around the world as no less than a comedic and feminist icon for her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But she was never recognized for what she really set out to do in show business: dancing and singing. “To this day, beneath the exterior of a successful actor beats the heart of a failed dancer,” she told Entertainment Tonight in 2004. She began her career as the dancing elf Happy Hotpoint in 1950s commercials for home appliance company Hotpoint. From there, she became an actress and turned out to be a monster comedic and dramatic talent. Despite her seven Emmys, one Tony (for a dramatic role in Whose Life Is It Anyway?), and one Oscar nomination (for Ordinary People), she kept trying to return to her musical roots. Here, look back at some of the best moments from Moore’s musical career — she may not have won awards for it, but she always looked overjoyed to be doing it.
The Dick Van Dyke Show, 1962
As Rob and Laura Petrie, Van Dyke and Moore had legendary on-screen chemistry that changed the way marriage was portrayed on TV. (They had separate beds, but watching them interact left no doubt they had sex.) That chemistry extended to the musical numbers that they, believe it or not, seamlessly integrated into storylines on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Moore’s first star turn. (Laura was a former dancer and Rob was a comedy writer, so, sure. Plus you didn’t really care why they were singing and dancing once they started.) “We thought we were the best dance team since [Fred] Astaire and [Ginger] Rogers,” Van Dyke said in an interview with Charlie Rose while remembering his co-star.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1966
The Broadway musical adaptation of Audrey Hepburn’s classic film role seemed like a dream vehicle for Moore’s transition to life after Van Dyke. But the stage version failed to do what the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s did so masterfully: balance the lightness and darkness of its source material, Truman Capote’s short story about a single woman in New York City forced to rely on her feminine wiles to get by. Amid loads of hype, producer David Merrick decided to shut down the production after four dismal preview performances, he said in a statement, “rather than subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciatingly boring evening.” Luckily, some vindication was on the way for Moore.
Thoroughly Modern Millie, 1967
Moore was a natural choice for a big-screen musical. In Thoroughly Modern Millie, she played the naïve best friend to Julie Andrews as the title character, a 1920s flapper — incidentally, trying to make it on her own in the big city. The film — an adaptation of a stage musical — was a hit, and Moore got admiring reviews for her acting, singing, and dancing. Alas, it would be her only hit during her attempt at movie stardom in the years immediately following Van Dyke.
Change of Habit, 1969
This notorious flop — famous for being Elvis’s last film — features Moore as a nun who falls in love with a doctor (played by the King) while they work together to help a poor neighborhood. There’s also music, of course! Moore didn’t get to sing or dance, but she did get to play a part in some cheesy music-video-like segments in which Elvis breaks out into song. Ridiculous movie premise aside, Elvis sounds perfect, and they both look luminous.
Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman, 1969
Van Dyke had plans to headline a variety special for CBS, the network that had aired The Dick Van Dyke Show, and he used it to give his former co-star a career boost. He invited her to perform in the special with him — highlighting their song and dance chemistry — and let her steal the show. It worked. Soon afterwards, CBS offered Moore her own sitcom. That deal resulted in her history-making Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970-77.
Mary’s Incredible Dream, 1976
During the run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Moore used her newfound clout to land a variety special of her own on CBS. But instead of making a straightforward special like Van Dyke’s in the previous decade, Moore and her production company, MTM Enterprises, instead made a psychedelic musical-fantasy that aimed to do no less than tell the history of the world in an hour. It included Moore as an angel floating around religious symbols and singing “Morning Has Broken,” Ben Vereen as a green devil and a rewritten version of Jerome Kern’s “She Didn’t Say Yes” that told of the Biblical fall of Eve. Moore was thrilled with the result, showing pre-screening tapes to all of her friends so much that her Mary Tyler Moore co-star, Betty White, teased, “It’s a shame you don’t put it on TV, instead of showing it door to door.” When it finally was on TV, however, critics eviscerated it, with the New York Times calling it “a landmark in TV vulgarity.” Luckily, Moore had the final year of The Mary Tyler Moore Show to return to.
Mary/The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, 1978
After The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended, Moore tried to build on that momentum to finally have a musical-variety series of her own, Mary, with a cast that included Michael Keaton, David Letterman and Swoosie Kurtz (all of whom are in the clip above). But ratings were dismal, and it was pulled after just three episodes. Later the same season, it returned in a retooled format, The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, and the conceit was clever: She played the star of a variety show, and we watched both her off-screen life — with a young Michael Keaton as her studio page, Kenneth — and portions of the show within the show. The 30 Rock approach (yes, Keaton was the original Kenneth the page!) was meant to lure viewers into the variety format with Moore in the familiar sitcom setting. However, this version lasted only 11 episodes. That said, don’t fret too much for Moore: she would be nominated for an Oscar just three years later, and would be remembered as one of the greatest comedic actresses of all time.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of the 2013 book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic.