One More Crushing Tragedy

Posted: January 09, 1986

All her life Mary Tyler Moore had hated guns. One of the things that bothered her most about her first husband, Richard Meeker, was his fascination with hunting. And she was even more troubled that her son, Richie, felt the same way his father did.

In a 1976 interview in Good Housekeeping, Mary said, "The frustrating thing for me is that my son really does love animals. Find a bird with a broken wing or an injured squirrel and he is there to mend it and nurse it. I'll never understand how Richie can just turn off those feelings when he discusses hunting."

Yet no one would deny that Mary loved her son deeply. Was it coincidence that Laura Petrie's son on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was named Richie, too? Or that Mary chose Richards as her character's last name on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"? Probably not. Although she may have been an absentee parent much of the time, Mary was trying very hard to send Richie signals that he was still important in her life.

Richie's parents were divorced when he was 6. He barely had time to adjust to that change when Mary married Grant Tinker - and Richie had to learn to deal with a stepfather and occasional visits from four stepsiblings. As a teenager, Richie saw that Grant and Mary's strongest attachments were to their careers - he was often lonely and left to his own devices. Finally, at 17 he moved to Fresno to live with his father, Richard Meeker, and stepmother, Jeanette.

By Mary's own admission, Richard's teenage years were a period of extreme alienation from her. "He rebelled against my affluence," she said. But it wasn't only the Tinkers' Bel-Air lifestyle that Richie found so stifling and barren; it was Mary's rigidity, combined with her total self-absorption in her career.

Richie was going through the rigors of adolescence just when "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was at its zenith. She was working long days, every day, striving for perfection on her show, more at home, in a sense, in her dressing room than in the home she shared with Grant and Richie. Mary's hold on personal relationships was tenuous, indeed. Around the same time that Richie opted to live with his father, Grant and Mary's first trial separation occurred.

The friction with his mother remained intense. Mary wasn't happy with his school grades, his choice of girlfriends or his use of marijuana. Sometimes her battles with Richie even became public. Mary rarely lost her temper at work, but when Richie showed up sporting a large and ugly tattoo of a dragon on his arm, Mary chewed him out within earshot of the whole MTM cast and crew.

After graduation, Richie returned to Los Angeles and lived on his own. He worked in the loan department of a bank and for two-and-a-half years lived with a young woman named Kelly Wilson. Kelly later remembered him as "well- adjusted" and "normal . . . just a big kid who never really wanted to grow up."

During this time, mother and son began to mend their differences. In fact, after Richie's death, Mary's New York press agent, Paula Green, admitted that Mary and Richard "went through a period when they didn't get along too well. But that all ended this year and they became really close." Paula Green also maintained that Mary and Richard spoke on the phone to each other at least twice a week, and that he had called Mary and had a very pleasant conversation with her a few hours before he died.

During the last year of his life, Richie suddenly expressed interest in becoming an actor - something that had never tempted him before. While he worked in the mail room at CBS, he auditioned for a part on "The Young and the Restless" (which he didn't get) and a part on "Dukes of Hazzard" (which he did). Unfortunately, the TV actors strike, which hit L.A. in the summer and fall of 1980, closed down all production and Richie never got a chance to actually do his "Dukes of Hazzard" stint.

He refused to let his mother or his stepfather, Grant Tinker, pave the way for him and was determined to make it on his own. According to Paula Green, Richie's sense of confidence about his acting career was the main topic of discussion during his last phone call to his mother. They talked happily about Richie's feelings that he was finally beginning to get somewhere in Hollywood.

A very public sign that Richie was drawing closer to his mother came in the summer of 1980 when he accompanied her to a private screening of ''Ordinary People." It corroborated what Mary had been telling the press for some time - that she and her only son were finally beginning to come to terms with each other. Early in 1980, Mary had told the Star: "We went through a fairly long period of not communicating. He had, I think, some resentments of my commitment to my work. He's beginning to understand that I was doing the best that I could at the time . . . It's nice, I have a new friend."

That summer Richard also changed his living arrangements once again. He moved into a small house in central Los Angeles with two friends, Janet McLaughlin and Judy Vasquez. His relationship with both girls was strictly platonic. Janet, 22, was an old friend of his from Fresno; and Judy was, in turn, a friend of hers.

In May, Janet had been burglarized while she was sleeping, and because of that Richie kept a .410-gauge shotgun in the house. It hung on a bedroom wall. On the night of Oct. 14, Richie was apparently in good spirits. Early in the evening, he talked with Janet McLaughlin about his plans for fixing up the house; he massaged a cramp in her foot and put up some bookshelves for her. Then, while Janet went off to her bedroom to study, Richie phoned his mom and Linda Jason, a girlfriend of his in Fresno.

Judy Vasquez came home at about 10:30 p.m. He had just finished talking with Linda Jason and reportedly was in a playful mood. While he sat on his bed, talking with Judy, he suddenly took his shotgun down from the wall and began playing with it.

According to Judy, "He was loading it and unloading it, saying 'She loves me, she loves me not,' with the barrel of the gun facing him."

Judy begged him to put the gun down. Richie replied, " I know what I'm doing" - then a few moments later the gun went off, killing him.

"Judy screamed and I ran out," Janet McLaughlin later told the Los Angeles Times. "She screamed that Richard had been shot." Both girls ran to neighbors for help.

Art Curtis, a painter who lived directly across the street, called the police and an ambulance when he found Judy Vasquez screaming and hysterical on his doorstep. "She was crying, 'Oh God, he shot himself. This is a fantasy. It's not happening!' "

Richard was taken to Western Park Hospital. According to the L.A. Times, he died shortly before midnight "of a shotgun blast to the face."

Janet McLaughlin called Grant Tinker who, in turn, called Mary in New York. Richie's father was notified soon afterward.

After an investigation by the coroner's office, the official verdict was that Richard Meeker Jr. had died as the result of an accidental, self- inflicted bullet wound.

The funeral was especially traumatic for Mary. She wept all through the service. All of her former TV colleagues rallied around her, and Ed Asner was particularly supportive. "He just held me in his arms and sobbed half the night through with me," she said. Dick Van Dyke sent flowers and phoned Mary at least twice each day to see how she was doing. President Carter phoned her three times and the Rev. Billy Graham called twice. Oral Roberts, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra sent their personal condolences as well.

After the funeral, Richie's body was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the Owens River, in a beautiful part of the Sierras that Richie had particularly loved. Mary and Grant were joined only by Richard and Jeanette Meeker for this final, and very private, rite.

Despite her own situation, Mary put her all into helping promote ''Ordinary People" in the Oscar race, and she was especially hopeful that her mentor, Robert Redford, would be picked as best director.

In the best-picture race, "Ordinary People" didn't have much competition. None of the other four nominees - "Coal Miner's Daughter," ''The Elephant Man," "Raging Bull" and "Tess" - seemed likely to cause

an upset. Long before the envelopes were opened, it was a foregone conclusion that "Ordinary People" would take a lion's share of the prizes, including best supporting actor (Timothy Hutton), best director (Redford) and best screenplay adaptation (Alvin Sargent).

Only one race - best actress - was really too close to call. There wasn't a single lightweight contender on the list. Each of the five nominated actresses - Mary Tyler Moore ("Ordinary People"), Ellen Burstyn ("Resurrection"), Goldie Hawn ("Private Benjamin"), Gena Rowland ("Gloria") and Sissy Spacek ("Coal Miner's Daughter") - had given, it could be argued, the most intriguing performance of her career. All of them deserved to win; obviously, only one lady would.

In the end, Sissy Spacek - not Mary - won the Oscar, but Mary's moment of triumph came earlier that evening when she appeared on stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to present the best supporting actor award. Tumultuous applause greeted her as she walked toward the podium, joined by her co- presenter Jack Lemmon.

This was Mary's first television appearance since the death of her son, and the irony of the moment was inescapable. When the winner turned out to be Timothy Hutton, her cinema son, and he bounded on stage to receive an Oscar and a hug from Mary, half the audience held their breath and choked back tears.

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