Moore was born in Brooklyn, New York, to George Tyler Moore (1913–2006), a clerk, and his wife Marjorie Hackett (1916–1992). Moore was the oldest of three children (her siblings were John and Elizabeth). Moore's family lived on Ocean Parkway in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Her paternal great-grandfather Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Tilghman Moore owned the house which is now the Stonewall Jackson's Headquarters Museum in Winchester, Virginia. When she was eight years old, Moore's family moved to Los Angeles at the recommendation of Moore's uncle, an MCA employee. She was raised Catholic, and attended St. Rose of Lima Parochial School in Brooklyn until the third grade. She then attended Saint Ambrose School in Los Angeles, followed by Immaculate Heart High School in Los Feliz, California. Moore's sister, Elizabeth, died at age 21 "from a combination of...painkillers and alcohol" while her brother died at age 47 from kidney cancer.
Moore decided at age 17 that she wanted to be a dancer. Her television career began with Moore's first job as "Happy Hotpoint", a tiny elf dancing on Hotpoint appliances in TV commercials during the 1950s series Ozzie and Harriet. After appearing in 39 Hotpoint commercials in five days, she received approximately $6,000. She became pregnant while still working as "Happy" and Hotpoint ended her work when it was too difficult to conceal her pregnancy with the elf costume. Moore modeled anonymously on the covers of a number of record albums and auditioned for the role of the older daughter of Danny Thomas for his long-running TV show, but was turned down. Much later, Thomas explained that "she missed it by a nose... no daughter of mine could ever have a nose that small."
Moore's first regular television role was as a mysterious and glamorous telephone receptionist on Richard Diamond, Private Detective. On the show, Moore's voice was heard, but only her legs appeared on camera, adding to the character's mystique. About this time, she guest-starred on John Cassavetes's NBC detective series Johnny Staccato. She also guest-starred in Bachelor Father in the episode titled "Bentley and the Big Board". In 1960, she was featured in two episodes of the William Bendix-Doug McClure NBC western series, Overland Trail and several months later in the first episode of NBC's one-season The Tab Hunter Show, a sitcom starring the former teen idol as a bachelor cartoonist. In 1961, Moore appeared in several big parts in movies and on television, including Bourbon Street Beat, 77 Sunset Strip, Surfside Six, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Steve Canyon, Hawaiian Eye, Thriller and Lock-Up.
In 1961, Carl Reiner cast Moore in The Dick Van Dyke Show, a weekly series based on Reiner's own life and career as a writer for Sid Caesar's television variety show Your Show of Shows, telling the cast from the outset that it would run for no more than five years. The show was produced by Danny Thomas's company, and Thomas himself recommended her. He remembered Moore as "the girl with three names" whom he had turned down earlier. Moore's energetic comic performances as Van Dyke's character's wife, begun at age 24 (11 years Van Dyke's junior), made both the actress and her signature tight capri pants extremely popular, and she became internationally known. When she won her first Emmy Award for her portrayal of Laura Petrie, she said, "I know this will never happen again".
In 1970, after having appeared earlier in a pivotal one-hour musical special called Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman, Moore and husband Grant Tinker successfully pitched a sitcom centered on Moore to CBS. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is a half-hour newsroom sitcom featuring Ed Asner as her gruff boss Lou Grant. Moore's show proved so popular that three other regular characters, Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern, Cloris Leachman as Phyllis Lindstrom and Ed Asner as Lou Grant were also spun off into their own series. The premise of the single working woman's life, alternating during the program between work and home, became a television staple.
After six years of ratings in the top 20, the show slipped to number 39 during season seven. Producers decided to cancel the series because of falling ratings, afraid that the show's legacy might be damaged if it were renewed for another season. Despite the dismal ratings, the 1977 season would go on to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, to add to the awards it had won in 1975 and 1976. All in all, during its seven seasons, the program held the record for winning the most Emmys – 29. That record remained unbroken until 2002 when the NBC sitcom Frasier won its 30th Emmy. The Mary Tyler Moore Show became a touchpoint of the Women's Movement for its portrayal of an independent working woman, which challenged the traditional woman's role in marriage and family.
During season six of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Moore appeared in a musical/variety special for CBS titled Mary's Incredible Dream, which featured Ben Vereen. In 1978, she starred in a second CBS special, How to Survive the '70s and Maybe Even Bump Into Happiness. This time, she received significant support from a strong lineup of guest stars: Bill Bixby, John Ritter, Harvey Korman and Dick Van Dyke. In the 1978–79 season, Moore attempted to try the musical-variety genre by starring in two unsuccessful CBS variety series in a row: Mary, which featured David Letterman, Michael Keaton, Swoosie Kurtz and Dick Shawn in the supporting cast. CBS canceled the series. In March 1979, the network brought Moore back in a new, retooled show, The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, which was described as a "sit-var" (part situation comedy/part variety series) with Moore portraying a TV star putting on a variety show. The program lasted just 11 episodes.
In the 1985–86 season, she returned to CBS in a series titled Mary, which suffered from poor reviews, sagging ratings, and internal strife within the production crew. According to Moore, she asked CBS to pull the show as she was unhappy with the direction of the program and the producers. She also starred in the short-lived Annie McGuire in 1988. In 1995, after another lengthy break from TV series work, Moore was cast as tough, unsympathetic newspaper owner Louise "the Dragon" Felcott on the CBS drama New York News, her third series in which her character worked in the news industry. As with her previous series Mary (1985), Moore quickly became unhappy with the nature of her character and was negotiating with producers to get out of her contract for the series when it was canceled.
In the mid-1990s, Moore had a cameo and a guest-starring role as herself on two episodes of Ellen. She also guest-starred on Ellen DeGeneres's next TV show, The Ellen Show, in 2001. In 2004, Moore reunited with her Dick Van Dyke Show castmates for a reunion "episode" called The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited.
In 2006, Moore guest-starred as Christine St. George, a high-strung host of a fictional TV show, on three episodes of Fox sitcom That '70s Show. Moore's scenes were shot on the same soundstage where The Mary Tyler Moore Show was filmed in the 1970s. Moore made a guest appearance on the season two premiere of Hot in Cleveland, which starred her former co-star Betty White. This marked the first time that White and Moore had worked together since The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended in 1977. In the fall of 2013, Moore reprised her role on Hot in Cleveland in a season four episode which not only reunited Moore and White, but also former MTM cast members Cloris Leachman, Valerie Harper and Georgia Engel as well. This reunion coincided with Harper's public announcement that she had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and was given only a few months to live.
Moore appeared in several Broadway plays. She starred in Whose Life Is It Anyway with James Naughton, which opened on Broadway at the Royale Theatre on February 24, 1980, and ran for 96 performances, and in Sweet Sue, which opened at the Music Box Theatre on January 8, 1987, later transferred to the Royale Theatre, and ran for 164 performances. She was the star of a new musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany's in December 1966, but the show, titled Holly Golightly, was a flop that closed in previews before opening on Broadway. In reviews of performances in Philadelphia and Boston, critics "murdered" the play in which Moore claimed to be singing with bronchial pneumonia.
Moore appeared in previews of the Neil Simon play Rose's Dilemma at the off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club in December 2003 but quit the production after receiving a critical letter from Simon instructing her to "learn your lines or get out of my play". Moore had been using an earpiece on stage to feed her lines to the repeatedly rewritten play.
During the 1980s, Moore and her production company produced five plays: Noises Off, The Octette Bridge Club, Joe Egg, Benefactors, and Safe Sex.
Moore made her film debut in 1961's X-15. Following her success on The Dick Van Dyke Show, she appeared in a string of films in the late 1960s (after signing an exclusive contract with Universal Pictures), including 1967's hit Thoroughly Modern Millie, as a would-be actress in 1920s New York who is taken under the wing of Julie Andrews' title character, and the 1968 films What's So Bad About Feeling Good? with George Peppard, and Don't Just Stand There! with Robert Wagner.
In 1969, she starred opposite Elvis Presley as a nun in Change of Habit. Moore's future television castmate Ed Asner also appeared in that film as a police officer. Moore did not appear in another feature film for eleven years. On her return to the big screen in 1980, she received her only Oscar nomination for her role in the coming-of-age drama Ordinary People, as a grieving mother unable to cope either with the drowning death of one of her sons or the subsequent suicide attempt of her surviving son, played by Timothy Hutton who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the film. Despite that success, Moore's only two films in the next fifteen years were the poorly received Six Weeks (1982) and Just Between Friends (1986). In 1996 she made her return to films with the independent hit Flirting with Disaster.
Moore appeared in the television movie Run a Crooked Mile (1969), and after the conclusion of her series in 1977, she starred in several prominent movies for television, including First, You Cry (1978), which brought her an Emmy nomination for portraying NBC correspondent Betty Rollin's struggle with breast cancer. Her later TV films included the medical drama Heartsounds (1984) with James Garner, which brought her another Emmy nomination, Finnegan Begin Again (1985) with Robert Preston, which earned her a CableACE Award nomination, the 1988 mini-series Lincoln, which brought her another Emmy nod for playing Mary Todd Lincoln, and Stolen Babies, for which she won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in 1993. Later she reunited with old co-stars in Mary and Rhoda (2000) with Valerie Harper, and The Gin Game (2003) (based on the Broadway play), reuniting her with Dick Van Dyke. Moore also starred in Like Mother, Like Son (2001), playing convicted murderer Sante Kimes.
Moore wrote two memoirs. In the first, After All (ISBN 0399140913), published in 1995, she acknowledged that she was a recovering alcoholic, while in Growing Up Again: Life, Loves, and Oh Yeah, Diabetes (2009), she focuses on living with type 1 diabetes (St. Martin's Press; ISBN 0-312-37631-6).
Moore and her husband Grant Tinker founded MTM Enterprises, Inc. in 1969. This company produced The Mary Tyler Moore Show and several other television shows and films. It also included a record label, MTM Records. MTM Enterprises produced a variety of American sitcoms and drama television series such as Rhoda, Lou Grant and Phyllis (all spin-offs from The Mary Tyler Moore Show), The Bob Newhart Show, The Texas Wheelers, WKRP in Cincinnati, The White Shadow, Friends and Lovers, St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues, and was later sold to Television South, an ITV Franchise holder in 1988. The MTM logo resembles the Metro Goldwyn Mayer logo, but with a cat named Mimsie instead of a lion.
At age 18 in 1955, Moore married Richard Carleton Meeker, whom she described as "the boy next door", and within six weeks she was pregnant with her only child, Richard Jr. (born July 3, 1956). Meeker and Moore divorced in 1961. Moore married Grant Tinker (1926–2016), a CBS executive (later chairman of NBC), in 1962, and in 1970 they formed the television production company MTM Enterprises, which created and produced the company's first television series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Moore and Tinker divorced in 1981.
On October 14, 1980, at the age of 24, Moore's son Richard died of an accidental gunshot to the head while handling a small .410 shotgun. The model was later taken off the market because of its "hair trigger".
Moore married Robert Levine on November 23, 1983, at the Pierre Hotel in New York City. They met when her mother was treated by him in New York City on a weekend house call, after Moore and her mother returned from a visit to the Vatican where they had a personal audience with Pope John Paul II.
Moore was diagnosed with Type I diabetes in 1969, after having a miscarriage. In 2011, she had surgery to remove a meningioma, a benign brain tumor. In 2014, friends reported that she had heart and kidney problems and was nearly blind.
Moore died at the age of 80 on January 25, 2017, at Greenwich Hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut from cardiopulmonary arrest complicated by pneumonia after having been placed on a respirator the previous week. She was laid to rest in Oak Lawn Cemetery, in Fairfield, Connecticut, during a private ceremony.
In addition to her acting work, Moore was the International Chairman of JDRF (formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation). In this role, she used her celebrity to help raise funds and awareness of diabetes mellitus type 1.
In 2007, in honor of Moore's dedication to the Foundation, JDRF created the "Forever Moore" research initiative which will support JDRF's Academic Research and Development and JDRF's Clinical Development Program. The program works on translating basic research advances into new treatments and technologies for those living with type 1 diabetes.
A long-time animal rights activist, she had advocated for animal rights for years, and supported charities like the ASPCA and Farm Sanctuary. She helped raise awareness about factory farming methods and promoted for more compassionate treatment of farm animals. She was a pescetarian. Moore appeared as herself in 1996 on an episode of the Ellen DeGeneres sitcom Ellen. The storyline of the episode includes Moore honoring Ellen for trying to save a 65-year-old lobster from being eaten at a seafood restaurant. She was also a co-founder of Broadway Barks, an annual animal adopt-a-thon held in New York City. Moore and friend Bernadette Peters worked to make it a no-kill city and to encourage adopting animals from shelters.
In honor of her father, George Tyler Moore, a lifelong American Civil War enthusiast, in 1995 Moore donated funds to acquire an historic structure in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, for Shepherd College (now Shepherd University) to be used as a center for Civil War studies. The center, named the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War, is housed in the historic Conrad Shindler House (c. 1795), which is named in honor of her great-great-great-grandfather, who owned the structure from 1815 to 1852. Moore also contributed to the renovation of the house used as headquarters during 1861–62 by Confederate Major General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. Use of the house had been offered to Jackson by its owner, Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Tilghman Moore, commander of the 4th Virginia Infantry and a great-grandfather of Mary Tyler Moore.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Moore had a reputation as a liberal or moderate liberal, and endorsed President Jimmy Carter for re-election in a 1980 campaign television ad. In 2011, friend and former co-star Ed Asner said during an interview on The O'Reilly Factor that Moore "has become much more conservative of late". Bill O'Reilly, host of the aforementioned program, previously stated that Moore had been a viewer of his show and that her political views had leaned conservative in recent years. In a Parade magazine article from March 22, 2009, Moore identified herself as a libertarian centrist who watches Fox News. She stated, "...when one looks at what's happened to television, there are so few shows that interest me. I do watch a lot of Fox News. I like Charles Krauthammer and Bill O'Reilly...If McCain had asked me to campaign for him, I would have." In an interview for the 2013 PBS series Pioneers of Television, Moore says that she was recruited to join the feminist movement of the 1970s by Gloria Steinem, but, did not agree with Steinem's views. Moore said she believed that women have an important role in raising children and that she did not believe in Steinem's view that women owe it to themselves to have a career.
In 1980, Moore was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the drama film Ordinary People but lost to Sissy Spacek for her role in Coal Miner's Daughter.
Moore received a total of seven Emmy Awards.
On Broadway, Moore received a special Tony Award for her performance in Whose Life Is It Anyway? in 1980, and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award as well. In addition, as a producer, she received nominations for Tony Awards and Drama Desk Awards for MTM's productions of Noises Off in 1984 and Benefactors in 1986, and won a Tony Award for Best Reproduction of a Play or Musical in 1985 for Joe Egg.
In 1986, she was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. In 1987, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy from the American Comedy Awards.
Moore's contributions to the television industry were recognized in 1992 with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star is located at 7021 Hollywood Boulevard.
On May 8, 2002, Moore was present when cable network TV Land and the City of Minneapolis dedicated a statue in downtown Minneapolis of the television character she made famous on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The statue, by artist Gwendolyn Gillen, was chosen from designs submitted by 21 sculptors. The bronze sculpture was located in front of the Dayton's department store – now Macy's – near the corner of 7th Street South and Nicollet Mall. It depicts the iconic moment in the show's opening credits where Moore tosses her Tam o' Shanter in the air, in a freeze-frame at the end of the montage. While Dayton's is clearly seen in the opening sequence, the store in the background of the hat toss is actually Donaldson's, which was, like Dayton's, a locally based department store with a long history at 7th and Nicollet. In late 2015 the statue was placed in storage during renovations to the mall, and in December it was relocated to the city's visitor center, where it will remain until the renovation is complete in 2017, after which the plan is for it to be returned to its original location.
Moore was awarded the 2011 Screen Actors Guild's lifetime achievement award. In New York City in 2012, Moore and Bernadette Peters were honored by the Ride of Fame and a double-decker bus was dedicated to them and their charity work on behalf of "Broadway Barks", which the duo co-founded.