After Mary Tyler Moore's television series, "Annie McGuire," died quietly on CBS two years ago, the warm, familiar star silently stepped out of sight too. Frustrated by CBS' handling of the show and the shortage of roles for women over 50, she sold her production company, MTM, and built a country house in Upstate New York with her husband, Robert Levine.
There, amid vegetable gardens and horses and dogs, Moore--"Mary" to most of America--did something that 35 years on the stage and screen have mostly prevented: She enjoyed her role as a wife.
"I don't necessarily have the guts to take advantage of all the freedoms that I have," Moore said. "For example, when I was a co-owner of MTM, I never--as Jane Fonda and a number of other actresses do--developed my own projects. I just wanted to act.
"Now that we have this country place, I love the serenity, and the gardening, and the horses and, you know, I practically carry on conversations with trees."
Moore was taking a break on the set of the black comedy "Thanksgiving Day." The "NBC Monday Night Movie" depicts an off-center family coping with life after the death of their father, played by Tony Curtis, who drops dead in the Thanksgiving turkey.
The movie is Moore's second this month--"The Last Best Year" co-starring Bernadette Peters aired two weeks ago on ABC. The previous time that Moore starred in a dramatic television project was in 1987, in the NBC miniseries "Gore Vidal's Lincoln."
"I think there are probably fewer roles written for women of a certain age , as they used to say," the five-time Emmy winner said politely, her hands folded in her lap. Moore spoke from inside her air-conditioned trailer on a dusty, stifling day in Malibu Canyon. Her hair was clipped comfortably short, and she wore tight faded jeans and a halter top, revealing a taut stomach that belied her 52 years.
The former dancer traditionally has played women much younger than her age, but she says those days are over, as evidenced by her role as an eccentric widow trying to strike out on her own in "Thanksgiving Day."
"What Mary shows is that women over 50 are still sexy, and are still funny, and are still vital," co-writer and producer Jeff Buhai said. "In one scene, she has a fantasy love dance in a supermarket with Nitro," one of the beefy stars of the syndicated "American Gladiators" TV series.
Moore said that she can still portray youth, but "not without an awful lot of effort. I mean, they'd have to get out every light made in Hollywood and put it at just the right angle for me to play a young woman."
After the beloved "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" folded in 1977, Moore dabbled in misfired TV series and variety shows, finding film success in "Ordinary People" and Broadway nods in "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" and "Sweet Sue." She was also a hit in TV movies, notably "Heartsounds" with James Garner.
In 1988, Moore was welcomed back by critics in "Annie McGuire," a subtle adult TV comedy series without a laugh track. But in a thicket of such fresh TV faces as Roseanne Barr and Candice Bergen, CBS scheduled the new thoroughly modern Mary in an 8:30 p.m. time slot, after the slapstick "Van Dyke Show" sitcom.
"I think some genius thought that would be a nifty idea-- They're back to back and back together ," Moore said, referring to her years on CBS as Laura Petrie, the perky wife on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" from 1961-66.
"We didn't belong in that time period," she said. "We weren't a children's show. We were aiming for a sophisticated audience, and we should have been on at 9 or 9:30 p.m."
When asked if she would ever return to television in a series, she resounded: "No! I really am not interested in doing a series again. What I'd like to continue--well, no, it's just so damn disappointing . . . I'm just not going to do that again. I'm not going to put my blood and sweat and tears into something, and then have no control over the final and most important aspect of the making of a series, which is where it goes."
In person, turning her emotions inside out, Moore was not unlike one of the sensitive, courageous women she often portrays.
"I suffer . . . from low self-esteem," she said. "I mean, I'm getting better at it. God knows I ought to, by this time, with a lot of self-analysis and searching. I used to make myself the center of every disaster, and always blame myself whenever a project went wrong. But that can really be the result of a big ego."
Moore said she is currently arranging a movie-of-the-week package with one of the networks and wants to do more feature films.
"I've turned down quite a few (scripts). Not as many as I'd like. I'd like to be able to say I've turned down every script that was offered to anybody, but there are those long fallow periods where nothing is offered. And at those times I revert to my old ways and say, 'Well, of course it figures, because I'm not talented, and I'm not likable, and nobody wants me, and it's over."'
In truth, Moore projects will come. In the meantime, what is the actress really looking forward to?
She smiled distantly.
"A new asparagus crop."
"Thanksgiving Day" airs Monday, 9-11 p.m. on NBC.