- Mary Tyler Moore had only one child during her life: a son, Richard “Richie” Meeker Jr.
- Richie was the son of Mary and her first husband, Richard Meeker.
- Richie died on Oct. 14, 1980, from a shooting accident. He was 24.
Mary Tyler Moore will forever be revered as an icon of television. She portrayed Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s before taking on the role of single working woman Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s. While Mary — who passed away in 2017 at age 80 was known for her career in front of the camera, she kept her personal life hidden from the public eye. Being Mary Tyler Moore, James Adolphus’ two-hour documentary (airing on HBO on May 26) looks at this part of Mary’s life, including the tragedy surrounding her only child, Richie Meeker.
Mary was married three times: first when she was 18 to 28-year-old Richard Meeker; then to television executive Grant Tinker; and finally, to cardiologist Robert Levine. Only her first marriage produced a child, the young Richard Carleton Meeker Jr. Sadly, Richie died in 1980 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The tragedy haunted Mary for years afterward.
What Happened To Mary Tyler Moore’s Son?
Richie died on Oct. 14, 1980, while living in a home near the University of Southern Campus, per the Washington Post. An avid gun collector, he was handling a short-barreled, .410-gauge shotgun when the gun went off in what authorities initially called a self-inflicted gunshot wound. One of Richie’s roommates, Judy Vasquez, told police the shooting was an accident. “He was loading and unloading the short-barreled gun when it went off . . . It was awful. He must have pulled the trigger. There was a big bang, and he fell on the bed.” His other roommate, Janet McLaughlin, was in another room at the time.
McLaughlin told the authorities that she’d spent the entire evening with Richie, and he showed no signs that would indicate he was suicidal. He made several calls that night, including to his girlfriend in Fresno, California. She said that Richie said “he was bored, but it was just a remark in passing. He didn’t mean anything by it. He said everything was all right and that he was happy with his job [as a messenger for CBS]. We even discussed fixing up the house we had rented.”
“I asked him how his day went, and he said, ‘fine,’ and we spoke a few more words,” added Vasquez. “I heard the gun click, and it went off.” They would also say Richie didn’t use “dope, alcohol, or pills,” per UPI.
“Everything was going perfect in his life,” McLaughlin said. “If they’re looking for something sordid in this, they aren’t going to find it.” Authorities notified Mary’s then-estranged second husband, Gary Tinker, about the death. He then told Mary. “I waited a couple of hours so the shock wouldn’t come in the middle of the night,” Tinker said, per the Washington Post. “Richard was a good guy. Calling Mary was the most difficult thing I ever had to do.” He said the news “absolutely destroyed her.”
At the funeral, Ed Asner “conducted the nonsectarian rites informally, recalling the youthful Meeker and his blossoming into manhood,” per UPI. Asner said he “tried to charm the young man because I like kids, but also because he was the boss’s kid. But I lost out when he fell under the spell of Ted (Knight), who charms all children.” The funeral had more than 200 mourners, primarily associates of Mary and Grant Tinker, through The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ted Knight, Gavin MacLeod, Valerie Harper, Jim Brooks, Jay Sandrich, Alan Burns, and Carl Reiner also attended the ceremony.
Richie’s death came just as Mary was starring in Ordinary People, a film about a mother who loses one son in an accident and almost loses another in a suicide attempt.
What Did Mary Say About Her Son’s Death?
“I demanded a lot of Richie,” Mary Tyler Moore later admitted in her 1995 memoir, After All, per PEOPLE. “I was responsible for a lot of alienation.”
Richie was three years old when Mary started her career in television. When he was 6, Mary divorced Richie’s father, and six months later, she married Grant Tinker, who had four children from a previous marriage. Mary took the blame for the distance between her and her son. “There is no question about it,” she wrote in her memoir. “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.”
Mary claimed in her book that her son began to use drugs during his senior year of high school. She claimed she received a phone call from a “frantic and sobbing” Richie who said he was in trouble with a drug dealer. “I realized the extent of the tangle that was now my son’s life,” wrote Mary. Richie got treatment for drug use, turned his life around, and graduated high school.
“On Oct. 15, 1980, at 5 a.m., the phone awakened me,” Mary wrote in After All. “It was Grant. ‘If you’re standing, you should sit down …. It’s Richie. He’s dead.”
The gun that killed her son was eventually taken off the market due to its “hair-trigger.”
Mary wrote about spreading her son’s ashes into the Owen River following his death. “The water was clear and high as I knelt over it,” she wrote. “I opened the container and emptied it into the rushing water. What was meant to be a prayer became an outraged demand. ‘You take care of him,’ I screamed at the sky.”
In 1995, Mary spoke of her son in an interview with Charlie Rose. “I didn’t invest enough, as I look back, you know,” she said. “Because he was, as I said earlier, the happiness, especially the happiness between us, was growing, was evolving, and 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.”
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