Minnesotans like to think Mary Tyler Moore belongs just to us. But the love for the late actor is all around, far from her statue on Nicollet Mall.
It's nearly impossible not to feel a connection with at least one of her most memorable characters: Laura Petrie, the not-always-happy homemaker in "The Dick Van Dyke Show"; Mary Richards, the steadfast associate producer at a fictional Minneapolis TV studio where the glass ceiling seemed as high as the IDS Center's roof panels in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"; Beth Jarrett, the suburban wife in "Ordinary People," who's more comfortable organizing golf outings than hugging her son.
Her universal appeal helps explain why "Being Mary Tyler Moore," a documentary premiering 7 p.m. Friday on HBO, was spearheaded by Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe ("Master of None"), acclaimed producer Debra Martin Chase ("The Princess Diaries") and director James Adolphus ("Soul of a Nation"), three African Americans with little connection to the state that adopted her.
Adolphus, who was on hand for the film's screening at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival in April, chatted about how he came to the project and ended up discovering nuggets about the ultra-private Moore, which is bound to surprise even her longtime fans.
Q: How much did you know about Mary Tyler Moore before taking on this assignment?
A: The truth is, before I was invited by Lena, I didn't know much about Mary, other than her name. I knew she meant a lot to a lot of people, maybe someone my mom had watched on TV. But I have never seen a single episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" or "The Dick Van Dyke Show" or "Ordinary People." I knew she was a line in a Weezer song, so I figured she must be important.
Q: Why do you think Lena picked you, then?
A: I think there's a strength in being a non-fan. I could come at it objectively. I could see a woman's life without being colored by where I was in my own life when I was watching her TV shows.
Q: When you were doing your research, did you have a favorite performance?
A: I really love "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Mary and Dick have phenomenal chemistry. and it came at a time when Hollywood didn't think women had comedic chops, which is a shame.
Q: Her projects weren't known for being racially diverse. Is it odd that three African Americans are the driving force behind this film?
A: In the '50s, '60s and '70s, if there had been versions of Mary that were black or queer, maybe Lena would have gravitated to those characters. But they didn't exist. Mary's performances and personal life is something we can all relate to. I think we get obsessed with our differences, but as a filmmaker, I'm looking for our commonalities.
Q: The movie starts with a clip of Moore's appearance on "The David Susskind Show." He's pretty condescending to her. Why did you open with that?
A: Once I got over the fact that Debra and Lena had entrusted her legacy to a Black man, I wanted to find a way into the story that was appropriate for men. Susskind spends the entire time berating her. He's a macho jerk, angry that he has to share the world and a stage with her. As a Black guy, that resonated with me. That's the same patriarchy I've had to deal with.
Q: The most revelatory scene is a clip from a home movie in which Moore is celebrating her upcoming marriage to Robert Levine. It's the most unguarded I've ever seen her. How did you come across that?
A: About eight months into filming, we were at Robert's house and he walked us into the basement, where there must have been 150 tapes in storage. I don't think he realized they were there. In that scene, she's at her bridal shower, telling her girlfriends over wine how Robert once made her a tuna fish sandwich and how that was more generous than the jewels she had gotten from other men. It's the one moment where you don't feel like Mary is giving a performance. But Robert was uncomfortable with it, maybe because she's drinking wine and we had just got done covering her alcoholism. He's fiercely protective of her image. I assured him that none of us would do anything to jeopardize Mary's legacy and that he shouldn't worry about it. He's been to a couple screenings now and he's told me he's glad he wasn't able to talk me out of using it.