1980 was turning out to be a really good year for Mary Tyler Moore.
The iconic TV actress, beloved for her roles in The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was receiving huge buzz for one of her most daring parts to date, in the film Ordinary People. She would eventually earn her first Oscar nomination and win a Golden Globe for her chilling performance in the movie, as a grieving mother who loses her son in an accident.
Less than a month after the film’s release, life would imitate art. Mary’s only son, Richard Meeker Jr., died in October 1980, after he accidentally shot himself in the head. He was 24.
“It came from out of nowhere. He was doing so well,” Moore recalled in her 2009 book Growing Up Again: Life, Loves, and Oh Yeah, Diabetes. “Unfortunately, there were terrible rumors that Richie killed himself, but it was an accident. He was a gun collector, was cleaning guns, and one of them went off and shot him in the head.”
Richie, Moore’s son with her first husband, Richard Meeker, was born when she was only 19. The couple split up when their son was 5, and months later, she wed TV producer Grant Tinker. Her second marriage ultimately fizzled, and it was during their estrangement that Tinker had to inform Moore of Richie’s death.
“The news absolutely destroyed Mary,” Tinker said at the time. “I waited a couple of hours so the shock wouldn’t come in the middle of the night. Calling Mary was the most difficult thing I ever had to do.”
Richie, who was attending the University of Southern California at the time, was “fiddling around” with a shotgun while talking to one of his roommates. His roommate, who witnessed the shooting, said he was “loading and unloading” the weapon at the time. “I don’t think he was paying attention to what he was doing,” she explained. “Nobody will ever make me believe his death was anything but an accident.”
Rumors of suicide initially persisted, due to Richie’s troubled past; however, the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office would later rule that his death was an accident.
Moore and Richie had a complicated relationship. In her 1995 memoir After All, she took responsibility for prioritizing her hectic work schedule. “There is no question about it. By the time Richie was 5, I had already let him down. When he needed me the most, I was busier and even more self-concerned than I had been when he was an impressionable infant,” she wrote, as reported in People.
In Growing Up Again, Moore echoed similar sentiments: “If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t have pursued a career while I had a little boy to care for… My heart breaks when I think of the times missed, times with him.”
Richie moved to live with his father in Fresno, Calif., in 1971. Richard Sr. was eventually transferred out of town, but Richie persuaded his parents to let him live alone and finish his senior year of high school. Soon after, he fell into drugs and got into trouble with a drug dealer. “I realized the extent of the tangle that was now my son’s life,” Moore wrote.
Richie received treatment, moved back in with his mother, and eventually finished high school. Moore and her son reconciled, but, in an interview she gave before her son’s death, she revealed that their relationship was still somewhat strained.
While doing press for Ordinary People, Mary talked to Rolling Stone about the similarities she saw in her life and the character she portrayed in the film.
“I think that, as a mother, there was a part of me that was very much like Beth in Ordinary People, to the detriment of my relationship with my son,” she revealed. “Our relationship never really developed to the point where we could have fun together — not as often as we should have. We are finally beginning to look at each other as human beings and finding out that we do occasionally read the same books, metaphorically speaking. As I look back on it, I demanded a great deal of him, and I wanted near-perfection from him early on, far earlier than he was capable of establishing his own ideas of what perfection is. Then you think, ‘God, even if you decide what it is for yourself, don’t shoot for perfection — there is no such thing.’”
Moore also told Barbara Walters in a 1979 interview that she wished she could “have another stab at motherhood.”
“I think I was as good a mother as I could have been, but I think I was so wrapped up in myself, as you must be at 18, 19,” Moore explained. “That’s still a very precious, growing period for you, and there I was, with a baby who was also demanding full attention. I didn’t get all the enjoyment out of it that I could have.”
It was when Mary was living alone in New York City that she received the call from her estranged husband, Grant, and was told of Richie’s death.
“It could not be true,” she wrote in After All. “Could he be here for 24 years and then irreversibly cease to exist? My sobs were those of panic. I called a friend to help get me on a plane to Los Angeles. Maybe when the plane landed it would all be different — a mistake. I called Grant back for the details: Richie had been holding a gun. The wound, where? Face. Did he live for any time? Death en route to a hospital.”
Mary., Richard Sr., and Grant all scattered Richie’s ashes together into the Owens River in the days following his death. “Time is a great healer” Moore wrote in 2009.
While Richie’s death had a huge impact on Moore, it also shook up the gun industry. The gun used in his death, known as “the Snake Charmer,” was eventually removed from the market due to its “hair-trigger” instability.
“The happiness, especially the happiness between us, was growing, was evolving,” Moore told Charlie Rose in a 1995 interview. “We had two wonderful years together where we understood each other and allowed each other to be who we were. To have had to cut that short is the worst shame.”
Mary Tyler Moore passed away on Wednesday at age 80 due to cardiopulmonary arrest after contracting pneumonia.