Late Hollywood star Mary Tyler Moore was known for being a beloved actress, author, and philanthropist — but her greatest role was that of a mother to her only child, Richie Meeker. Not many people know that Richie tragically died at age 24 in the early 1980s and his death left a gaping hole in the remainder of Mary’s prolific life.
On Oct. 14, 1980, Mary’s son sadly passed away from an unintentional, self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. Richie was reportedly handling a small .410 shotgun when the weapon accidentally fired. The young man was a gun collector and was attending college at the time. Richie’s father was Mary’s first husband, Richard Carleton Meeker, whom the actress married at age 18 in 1955. Within six weeks of her wedding, Mary became pregnant and the couple’s son, Richard “Richie” Carleton Meeker Jr., was born on July 3, 1956.
Mary and her son, Richie, in 1968. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
In Mary’s 1995 memoir, After All, the Emmy Award winner recalled the harrowing phone call she received in fall 1980 from her then-estranged second husband, Grant Tinker, about Richie’s death. “The phone awakened me. It was Grant. ‘If you’re standing, you should sit down… It’s Richie. He’s dead,'” the actress wrote.
Richie’s college roommate at the University of Southern California, Judy Vasquez, also once spoke out about the heartbreaking incident in an interview with The Washington Post. “He was loading and unloading the short-barreled gun when it went off,” she said. “It was awful. He must have pulled the trigger. There was a big bang and he fell on the bed.”
Following his passing, Mary scattered her son’s ashes in California’s Owens River. “The water was clear and high as I knelt over it. 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,” she wrote in After All.
In her memoir, Mary additionally opened up about the time she was estranged from her only child due to her busy work schedule. “I demanded a lot of Richie. I was responsible for a lot of alienation. There is no question about it. By the time Richie was five, 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. Mary sadly passed away at age 80 in January 2017 from pneumonia.