Moore Declines to Rest On Her 'Lauras'

Best-known for her TV-sitcom roles, the actress still seeks to expand her repertoire

MARY TYLER MOORE seemed to pop up everywhere this fall: in a well-received autobiography, "After All"; as the tough-as-nails editor Louise Felcott in "New York News" (which CBS canceled last month); guest appearances on the "Late Show With David Letterman" and elsewhere.

Nineteen ninety-six gets off to a brisk start for the actress, adored for her girl-next-door TV persona, as she stars in the Family Channel film "Stolen Memories: Secrets From the Rose Garden" on Jan. 7.

A planned resurgence? Not really, Ms. Moore says during a recent telephone interview. In her distinctively bright, lilting voice, she says, "Nineteen ninety-five just seemed to be an extraordinary year with a lot of good things happening."

Moore has had other extraordinary years, of course, most notably those in which she played the perky Laura Petrie on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (1961-66) and the independent, kind-hearted Mary Richards on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (1970-77).

"Those two women set me up," Moore says now. "They were extraordinary characters, beautifully written, and surrounded by other brilliantly portrayed characters. That gave me the ability today to pick and choose what I want to do."

These characters have proved so endearing, in fact, that it can be difficult to imagine Moore in any other roles. Yet over the years, she's proved her acting range in such works as "Whose Life Is It Anyway?," a Broadway play for which she won a Tony Award; and in Robert Redford's film "Ordinary People," for which she won a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

In recent years, Moore has increasingly leaned toward acting projects that reflect a desire to take on roles unlike her best-known personas. "I'm looking always now for roles that present a challenge to me, that are characters with which I am not wholly familiar," she says. "That rules out anything that vaguely even reminds one of Mary Richards or Laura Petrie, because I've done that."

Such a challenge lay in Louise Felcott, the hard-edged editor in chief on "New York News." But disappointment set in, Moore says, when her character wasn't fleshed out and instead hovered among cliches. Moore blames that show's demise on a late "pickup" time for a fall premiere and a small budget that led to understaffing on the writing end.

Moore's most recent project, "Stolen Memories: Secrets From the Rose Garden," challenged her to take on the role of Jessie, a middle-aged woman who had never progressed mentally beyond age 6. Set in the South in 1956, the film tells the story of a pivotal summer for Jessie: Her nephew comes to visit her and her two sisters (Linda Lavin and Shirley Knight). Jessie's friendship with the boy triggers an understanding of events in her past.

"That was a unique - probably never-to-happen-again - opportunity, and one that I couldn't turn down," Moore says. She notes that she was initially considered for one of the other sister roles; but the dignity and grace she adds to Jessie - qualities that were staples for Mary Richards and Laura Petrie - make her well-suited for her elected part.

"I use - whenever possible - people in my own family and aspects of myself," Moore says of her preparation for her various roles. "I read about people.... I'm an observer and a commenter on people."

Self-observation and reflection play a large role in her autobiography, a "serial essay" of her professional experiences and personal life, including her marriage to and divorce from Grant Tinker; the deaths of her son, Richie, and brother, John; a childhood with unfulfilling relations with her parents yet a household filled with humor; her struggle against alcohol; and her fulfilling marriage to S. Robert Levine.

"I really do enjoy the process of writing," she says. "I like sitting in the chair, by myself, and with my yellow legal pad and pencil and eraser and pencil sharpener, spending a couple of hours a day just - spilling."

Though Moore says she doesn't have her next project lined up, the thought of resting on her past accomplishments "is anathema to me. I love what I do, and I can't imagine not continuing to create."

Even if Moore's future creations are markedly different from her Laura Petrie and Mary Richards roles, it's clear that Moore, along with millions of Americans, continues to identify with them: "I am very close to those two women," she says. "And I respect them and love them, and they will always be a part of me."

*"Stolen Memories: Secrets From the Rose Garden" airs Sunday, Jan. 7, 7-9 p.m., on the Family Channel.

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