It’s hard today to remember just how many people watched Mary Tyler Moore during her peak half-hour network comedy era, first with “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (CBS, 1961 to 1966), then “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (CBS, 1970 to 1977). That Emmy-lauded newsroom sitcom reached 30 million homes, with some 100 million tuning in every Saturday night to watch Moore embody that rare thing on television: a single career woman who was not defined by the men in her life. At the time, this was radical.
Given that those millions were watching Moore back in the 60s and 70s, and later with Nick at Nite reruns, it’s no surprise that many people who did not grow up with Moore do not know her at all. Maybe they’d seen the iconic hat toss or heard a reference in a Weezer song (“Buddy Holly”).
That was the level of knowledge for the Harlem-born TV cinematographer-turned-documentary director James Adolphus, who took on the two-hour documentary “Being Mary Tyler Moore” (HBO) without having seen one episode of her television shows. But producer Lena Waithe “bet on Mary,” she told me on Zoom. “If I’m correct, he’s going to fall in love with her, like the rest of the world did. And that’s what happened.”
Five years ago, a year after Moore’s death, her widower Dr. Robert Levine read a 2018 Waithe Vanity Fair cover story in which she expressed her admiration for Moore. Levine invited Waithe to the Connecticut estate he used to share with his wife, showing Waithe her office, her pens and papers, her awards, her closet. Levine “was the love of her life,” said Waithe on Zoom. “He was the one there when she passed away. Her ghost was with us in a way. He said, ‘I love that my wife had such an impact on you. And I never would have thought about that.’ And I said to him, ‘She had a humongous impact on me, what I want to write, and how I want to exist in this world.’ And when I left I thought, ‘Oh I want everyone else to have the experience I just did.’”
That’s how Waithe started to ponder how to bring Moore to life in a film: a documentary, she decided, was the way to go, which was neither something she had done before nor had time to do more than produce. Waithe’s initial love of Moore stemmed from studying in college the writing on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” “It’s something you have to learn,” she said. “It’s almost like the filmmakers who have to study Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. You have to know it if you want to write half-hour comedy.”
This lead Waithe to read Moore’s memoir, “After All” (which is back in print). “I thought what a fascinating human being she was, to be the Jackie O of television, but then to be someone in her own life and figuring out who she wanted to be. Even though she was the blueprint for so many women. She was trying to create a blueprint at home.”
First, Waithe assembled her producing team. “I was the idea person,” she said. “I wanted to have a team, which included (her producing partner) Rishi Rajani, Debra Martin Chase, Ben Selkow, and Dr. Levine. We’re a wonderful group. We represent what society actually looks like. And we all have a lot more in common than we think. And it needed a director who could be the maestro.”
When it came time to hire that person, Waithe didn’t do the obvious and hire a woman. Instead she turned to Moore neophyte Adolphus, who she had just worked with on a Quibi sneaker docu series “You Ain’t Got These.” During production, Adolphus interviewed her on a day when she was in no mood to be interviewed — and got great stuff out of her. “I made a mental note,” she said. “I learned in that moment that he cares so much about the subject matter that he’s going to connect, he’s going to care, he’s going to give a shit.”
Adolphus started by reading Moore’s memoir, and found himself identifying with her in ways he had not expected. Moore grew up with alcoholic parents; Adolphus grew up around violence and drugs. They navigated their way in show business success. “There were some dark stories in her life,” he said. “She only gave a few pages to the death of her son, she gave not a full page to being sexually assaulted when she was a child by a neighbor. She wasn’t expressive with her feelings. I appreciated that she led with her vulnerabilities. Because she’s not known as someone who is vulnerable.”
Adolphus also appreciated that “being told who you are and who you can be and who you can’t be is annoying,” he said. “Like, it was a discovery for the folks who made ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ that Mary Tyler Moore was funny. They had to go back in and rewrite the first eight episodes.”
Waithe and Adolphus made complementary partners. “They were bringing different experiences to the table,” said Rajani. “Lena coming from a much more creative background, James coming from amore journalistic documentary background. Lena walking through the world as a woman, James walking through the world as a man. Lena being a lover of Mary, James not knowing anything about Mary.”
Wrangling with the power structure also became a new touchpoint for Waithe. She moved from being obsessed with how to construct a brilliant 30 minutes of television comedy to appreciating what it meant to be a woman in the public eye managing the patriarchy and winning Emmys. “The cool thing is to engage with people,” said Waithe. “You never know who is having an impact on who. And you can come from any walk of life and inspire somebody.”
Archive footage was key to to making the doc tick. Both Waithe and Adolphus knew as soon as they watched the David Susskind interview with Moore that they would open the film with it. When Susskind suggests that Laura Petrie was some kind of ideal woman who could not exist in real life, Moore shoots back by quoting Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.”
“Susskind treating Mary the way he did just perfectly illustrated this frustration that Black folk have that I could identify with,” said Adolphus. “You’re not seen. And it doesn’t matter that you’ve just worked your ass off for six years. And you’re coming off one of the hottest shows on TV, you’re one of the most famous people in the country. He’s still like, ‘but not on my show.’ But Mary doesn’t cower in the moment. It’s heroic.”
There wasn’t much Moore interview or home video footage to work with, so at first Adolphus relied on interviews with the likes of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Phylicia Rashad, Gloria Steinem, and James L. Brooks. But when Waithe looked at the early assemblage, she told Adolphus to back off the talking heads and lean into the archives. “Whenever you guys are in the archives and we’re immersed in Mary, it’s magic,” she said. So Adolphus and editor Mariah Rehmet turned the interviews into background audio.
A last-minute discovery by Levine of a trove of 100 hours of basement home videos shot at Moore and Levine’s horse farm in Connecticut supplied the end of the movie, including a charming bachelorette party with a candid Moore and her girlfriends.
After HBO picked up the movie off a director presentation, their notes threw Adolphus another curve: He was planning to use Moore’s words from the memoir as a narration, but the executives felt the device would not work without Moore’s own voice. Adolphus had to scramble in the edit yet again.
But the end result is a strong portrait of a woman with talent and force of will going up against the patriarchy and winning. At one screening of the film at New York’s IFC Center, Adolphus said, a man stood up and said, “I’ve been a lifelong fan of Mary Tyler Moore. I grew up watching Mary on the floor with my family. This woman meant everything to me. When I came into this movie here tonight I expected to see a film that gave me the best of Mary’s highlights. You didn’t give that to me, And I was really disappointed. What you gave me was this portrait of a woman who I now feel that I can walk out and call my friend.”
Adolphus choked up. “It moves me every time.”
Next up: With “The Chi” in the rearview, Waithe and Rajani are continuing to pursue multiple projects, from Sundance breakouts “Kokomo City” (Magnolia Pictures) and “1001” (Focus) to feature “Chang Can Dunk” (Disney+), and will embrace more documentaries. And Adolphus is prepping his first feature, a coming-of-age story about his time as a volunteer professor in the Palestinian territories during the Second Intifada, as well as finishing an Amazon Studios documentary about the history of Black music creation set against the background of Covid and the uprising of 2020.