The woman behind Laura, Mary, and Mary

I'M convinced that Mary Tyler Moore, the public personality, is somehow bigger than Mary Tyler Moore Levine, the human being. I try to get past that.'' The star who, in three different series, has played to about 2 billion viewers in more than 100 countries during the past two decades is responding to questions about how she sees herself in relation to that vast audience.

``I'm tough on myself sometimes,'' she continued in an interview. ``There is a part of me that beats me up, that says, `Hey, c'mon -- you're not smart enough, loving enough, outgoing enough, pretty enough, young enough -- and you're not and you're not and you're not. . . .' So a part of me responds with a great deal of surprise to the affection I get from the public. But I'm getting away from that more and more. I guess what I am beginning to sense in myself -- that responds to what these people are saying about me or feeling about me -- is that that's OK. At least I'm out there, and I'm trying.''

Miss Moore has created variations on the same character in three series: Laura Petrie in ``The Dick Van Dyke Show'' (1961-66), Mary Richards in ``The Mary Tyler Moore Show'' (1970-77), and Mary Brenner in her current show, ``Mary.''

Although it is gaining a growing audience, the new series has started off slowly, so CBS has decided to move it from 8 p.m. Wednesday to Tuesday nights at 9, starting March 25. And the show will reportedly be given a softer edge, with a new group of ``nicer'' people around the star.

We are chatting in her trailer/dressing room between rehearsals in Studio City, where MTM Enterprises -- of which Mary Tyler Moore Levine is chairman of the board -- tapes episodes of ``Mary,'' ``Golden Girls,'' ``Cheers,'' ``Hill Street Blues,'' and ``St. Elsewhere.''

Talking with Mary is a bit unnerving, not only because she is a living legend, but because elements of her TV characters seem to appear in her off-camera personality -- and sometimes one loses track of which Mary is doing the talking.

Is the Mary in the new series a throwback to the old Mary? ``I think the kind of comedy that people watch is cyclical,'' she says. ``My previous show came in an era of articulate comedy that had things to say. And then there came a rash of broader kinds of comedy. And now, no thanks to us -- I think it was pioneered by Mr. [Bill] Cosby and `Cheers' . . . -- there's room for me again. I just think it goes in and out.''

The women played by Moore have become symbols of female independence in many circles. Does the new ``Mary'' reflect a change in the role of women?

``I'd like to take credit for that, but, in fact, what I am playing now is me, Mary Tyler Moore, having grown in the eight years since I did the last episode of the old show. So that I will retain some vulnerability, but I'm also a little wiser, a little more experienced. I'm not so eager to please anymore or so devastated when I fail. And coincidentally, I think that represents a certain kind of woman in the '80s, yeah. But it's not by design.''

But aren't women more in control of their own lives in TV sitcoms and dramas these days? ``Well, in more control to the degree that any human being can be in control of his or her destiny. Yes, women are being treated with a little more respect, and they are respecting themselves more than they did eight years ago.''

Mary Tyler Moore goes on to compare all the various characters she has played on television. ``All of the ladies are 75 percent of them me. I mean the essence is me, because I am an instinctive actress when I'm working in television. I can, when doing a movie, create a character, but there isn't the time on weekly episodic television. So those ladies have to be me, and the tone is set by the eras in which they live.

``You will see a growth from Laura Petrie of `The Dick Van Dyke Show,' who in the 1960s was perfectly content to be the loving, dutiful wife of a functioning human being. No longer quite so content with that was Mary Richards in `The Mary Tyler Moore Show' in the 1970s. She was a different lady, trying bolder forays into the real world. And now, this new lady, Mary Brenner [columnist for a Chicago tabloid], who is not so much building a career but trying to maintain her living standard, to contribute something to the world. But she is being a little more her own person, not ready to make so many compromises.''

Has Mary Tyler Moore just described Mary Tyler Moore? ``Seventy-five percent . . . or 80 percent.''

Does she find being something of a role model to many women a great burden?

``No. Had I been playing a so-called perfect woman, then I would find it too much of a responsibility and a burden. But I don't. I, Mary Tyler Moore Levine, am an imperfect human being and am proud of it. I am not ashamed to admit that I have weaknesses and problems, have made mistakes and sought help and so on. I have to assume that a part of me is part of the characters with whom the audience identifies, and I think what transcends my negative qualities and keeps me a role model, if there is such a thing, are the qualities of basic decency, a loyalty to friends, a dedication to work and principles. Those things are never too burdensome, because those are part of my daily life and goals for the future.''

Does she consider herself a feminist?

``Yeah. Well, a humanist -- meaning that I think that everybody has rights and they ought . . . to be respected. Politically . . . sexually.''

Could Mary be a housewife? the interviewer asks. And he is not sure whether he means Mary Tyler Moore Levine or Mary Brenner.

She has no ambivalence. ``I certainly couldn't. First of all, I never developed any of the skills. I don't cook, and I have no interest in cooking, except on a very odd occasion or two. . . . No, I think it's wonderful that some women are perfectly happy being wife and mother and homemaker and cook. But it's not for me. I need to lead a more independent journey than one that includes primarily being the extension of another person . . . husband or children.''

Several years ago she divorced Grant Tinker, then president of MTM Enterprises and now NBC's chairman, and a couple of years ago married Dr. Robert Levine, a cardiologist who lives in their apartment in New York, to which she commutes every other week. Was it meaningful that she referred to herself at the beginning of our interview as Mary Tyler Moore Levine?

``I guess I was trying to draw the difference between Mary Tyler the actress and Mary Tyler Moore the person, with secret and personal and private feelings. Not that I don't have them myself without being married to a man named Levine. I just meant to delineate the difference.

``I almost always introduce myself as Mary Tyler Moore because I've matured enough to be secure enough to say, yes, I'm proud of who I am, and I'm proud of my accomplishments, and this is who I am. I am married to Dr. Robert Levine, but he is not my identity. I have a wonderful relationship with my husband.''

What would Mary Tyler Moore consider success for the new show, other than huge numbers?

``I'd like it to touch people in the way that the other series touched people. It's very rewarding when people say, `Oh I saw the show the other night, and I know just how you felt when you did that.' ''

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