Following Mary Tyler Moore’s passing last week, tributes poured in. Included was one from Ed Asner, who played the gruff but bighearted Lou Grant on Mary’s show, “I lost a great friend, teacher and benefactor, all of whom l loved.” The ground-breaking series influenced a generation of women in television and journalism, including Oprah who said through tears, “Mary inspired my life and career.”
As Mary was such a brilliant comedienne, it was fitting that our “meeting” was amusing. (Although, at the time, not so to me.) During college, I parked cars at a Hollywood nightclub and one night I parked Mary’s, though there was more to it than just that.
It was 1965 and the nightclub was Slate Brothers on La Cienega. Don Rickles was the comedian the night Mary, the female lead on the “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” came in. Actually, Lenny Bruce was supposed to be working but because of occasional profanity in his act, Henry Slate, the scowling owner, changed his mind. It seemed a bit hypocritical as the nicest thing I ever Henry say without swearing was “Shut up!”
Rickles was originally hired for two weeks but he was such a sensation he was held over for 38 weeks. As word spread, celebrities flocked to see, whom Johnny Carson would label “Mr. Warmth,” insult other celebrities and also to show they could take it themselves.
If I stood next to the door I could hear the act and if I peered into where the doors met I could see a tiny sliver of what was going on. That’s where my face was when Rickles began chiding Mary about being such a goody-goody. As the crowd laughed, Rickles got even more biting.
Moments later, the doors suddenly burst open hitting me right in the schnoz. It was such a shock I thought I might pass out. As I stood there seeing stars, I could only hear a rather unhappy Mary ask for her car. I was still trying to recover my equilibrium when she forcefully repeated her request.
I couldn’t very well say I’d been peeking through the doors. So, best as I could, I ran across the street to the parking lot, got her car and drove precariously across La Cienega to the front of the club.
Mary hurriedly got into her car and drove off. I’d never given the expression “seeing stars” much thought until I was actually seeing them. One thing, it cured me of peeking through the doors.
While Mary was comedically talented, when given the chance, she was an extraordinary dramatic actress. One only had to see, “Ordinary People,” for which she won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. (“Ordinary People” won 4 Oscars in 1980: Best Director in Robert Redford’s directorial debut; Best Picture; Best Screenplay Adaptation ,Alvin Sargent; and Best Supporting Actor, Hutton, though many felt he should have competed in the Best Actor category given the amount of his screen time.)
I saw “Ordinary People” at the Bruin Theater in Westwood and it had an incredible impact. Based on Judith Guest’s first novel in 1976, Hutton played Conrad, a high school student who attempted suicide after the boating accident death of his older brother whom he idolized. Playing against type, Moore was his perfectionist, emotionally controlled mother whom he felt never forgave him.
As was the whole cast, Moore was brilliant, even more so because of a personal tragedy a year earlier. Richard Meeker, to whom she gave birth when she was eighteen, died while cleaning a gun when he was twenty-eight. Redford called her “the most courageous actor” he’d ever known. (To see one of Mary’s remarkable scenes, Google: “Ordinary People golf.”)
I found the film so emotionally powerful, that I was weeping, especially at the end. Except, I couldn’t seem to stop. As everyone was leaving the theater I couldn’t move. As the usher was cleaning up for the next showing he was puzzled as I was still in my seat and a wreck. I think he was relieved when I finally sneaked out the side door.
As I was still weeping, people on the sidewalk were staring. On the 405 Freeway going home, I even had to pull my VW van over on the shoulder. Moments later, a Highway Patrol cruiser, with flashing red-lights, pulled behind me.
Politely, the officer asked if I was having engine trouble. When I sheepishly told him I’d just seen a very sad movie, he, not so politely, ordered me out of the van. When he shined his flashlight in my eyes, suddenly I wasn’t emotional anymore. Whew.
At Slate Brothers, you could say Mary inadvertently made me see stars. Many years later, watching her in “Ordinary People,” I saw a genuine star. Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017) R.I.P.
To see Mary’s “golf scene” click here:
Jack can be reached at email@example.com.