Mary Tyler Moore's road to The Dick Van Dyke Show
"Overnight success" is usually totally inaccurate. That's rarely how anything actually happens. Typically, success is the culmination of years of hard work that was done outside of the public eye. Really, the term should be "overnight awareness," as it has much more to do with perception than it does success. The thing that actually changed overnight is the mass recognition. It was something in the audience that shifted, and not the performer.
A great example of this phenomenon is the early career of Mary Tyler Moore. When she appeared on The Dick Van Dyke Show, her talent was immediately clear. There was such instant clarity and chemistry in her performance. She was the actor for that job, and she popped onscreen right away. It seemed like such sensational star power must have been some sort of overnight miracle. But to attribute such greatness to magic would be to overlook the years of hard work Moore put in to get where she was going.
She began her career in show business as a dancer in chorus lines on shows like The George Gobel Show and The Eddie Fisher Show. While those first moments in the spotlight assured Moore she was on the right path, chorus line dancing was not her end goal. The pay was poor, and she found the work to be "about as dull as modeling," according to a 1964 interview in The Buffalo News.
Moore knew that to achieve what she wanted in life, she had to diversify her skillset, and that's when she began acting. She took bit parts in "every terrible series you can name," frequently appearing as telephone operators and secretaries. Her highest-profile audition was for the role of Danny Thomas' daughter on his eponymous sitcom. Ultimately, Penny Parker would beat her for the job, with Thomas explaining to Moore that the future Dick Van Dyke star was just too sophisticated for the role of his eldest child. "Besides," Thomas told Moore, "with a nose like yours, nobody would believe you belonged to me."
Danny Thomas didn't forget about Miss Moore, and two years later recommended her to producer Carl Reiner who was creating a new show about a comedy writer and his home life. She was hesitant, at first, to take a role where she'd become just "another wife, a nice, reliable, little woman," with nothing more to distinguish her from her time playing secretaries and phone operators. Instead, though, Moore found herself surrounded by some of the best writers in Hollywood and the best performers on TV. She specifically praised Dick Van Dyke for what he brought to the table.
"Dick Van Dyke spoils you for working with other people," Moore told The Buffalo News. "I'm not just throwing Hollywood words around. He is so good, so saint-like, we all have to be sure he is getting his fair share. Every day you have to talk him into believing he's a star."
Unlike her onscreen husband, though, nobody had to talk Moore into believing she was a star. She worked hard to get there, and a star was born.
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