Not, perhaps, anything that screamed "superstar in the making," but seven Emmys, a Tony Award and an Academy Award nomination later -- not to mention a titular CBS sitcom regarded as one of the best comedy series ever made -- Mary Tyler Moore accepts the Life Achievement Award from her peers during the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, airing on TNT and TBS on Sunday, Jan. 29.
The actress, who was in her early 20s when she got the job, says her castmates, who included veterans Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam, never seemed to treat her as less than a peer, but then, she was mostly focused on watching and learning.
"It was nonverbalizable, what I learned on that show, it was so rich," Moore says. "Just watching them work, I was able to take something for the way I worked, and I did not mess around with anything. I was constantly thinking and working and trying new things and fighting through the fear that I felt that there was no way I could possibly equal Dick in any of the things that we had together.
"She became the comedy partner of my life," Van Dyke says. "My God, what a team we were!"
A team, as it turns out, that viewers would continue to associate with each other (the pair also later appeared together in a 1969 music special and a 2003 adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Gin Game"), especially when CBS looked at Moore's next project, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," in which Moore's character, Mary Richards, originally was conceived as a divorcee.
"CBS was worried that the audience would naturally visualize Rob and Laura Petrie, and no woman in her right mind could ever divorce Rob Petrie," Moore says, laughing.
"Yeah, that actually was a big problem," Van Dyke recalls. "I did a little series with Hope Lange a few years later, and a lady in the supermarket hit me with her purse and said, 'How dare you leave that lovely Laura?' A lot of people thought we were actually married in real life, which was quite a compliment to us."
Of course, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which ran on CBS from 1970 to 1977, became something of a sitcom touchstone, assembling a matchless cast that included future Emmy winners Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Ed Asner and Betty White, among others. Moore says the cast and creative team were confident they were doing good work but never thought in terms of making a masterpiece.
"And maybe that was why we were able to run as long as we did, because we never were stepping off the plate and observing what we were doing," Moore says. "We were just doing it. It made us feel good, and when you feel good you've got to be doing something good."
Since "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" ended its run, Moore hasn't found a weekly comedy series that fit with her strengths, but she entered a new phase of her career in the late 1970s, when Robert Redford cast her against type as Beth Jarrett in his Oscar-winning movie "Ordinary People."
The role called for America's sweetheart to play an upper-class mother whose grief over the drowning death of one son has made her distance herself from the boy's surviving sibling. Moore gave a shattering performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination as best actress.
"(Robert and I) lived on the same beach in Malibu, but we frequently would meet each other walking in different directions and just nod to each other as we passed," Moore says. "He told me later that as he passed me and looked at me, he often wondered what the dark side of Mary Tyler Moore might be. That's why he just couldn't get me out of his mind. He just thought I was the one to play this."
Moore freely acknowledges that playing Beth gave her the credibility to tackle such gigs as her Tony-winning run on Broadway as a quadriplegic in "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" as well as such TV movie roles as emotionally unstable first lady Mary Todd Lincoln and murderous mommy Sante Kimes, among others.
"I knew that (side of Mary) was there," Van Dyke says. "I wanted to kiss Robert Redford on the mouth for getting that performance out of her. I know that he saw a side of her that other people didn't see.
"I swear to God, Mary could read my mind, and she knew what I was going to do before I did it. I've never had anybody else I worked with like that. We never wanted it to end. She was just unbelievably instinctive and intuitive. The gal's just got it, that's all," he says.