Valerie Harper, star of Rhoda sitcom, dies at 80

Emmy award-winning actor was a breakout star on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, then the lead of her own series

Valerie Harper: made the role of Rhoda her own. Photograph:  Ron Frehm/AP

Valerie Harper: made the role of Rhoda her own. Photograph: Ron Frehm/AP

 

Valerie Harper, who parlayed a sidekick role as the leading lady’s unprepossessing best friend on The Mary Tyler Moore Show into a star turn of her own in the hit sitcom Rhoda, died on Friday. She was 80. The death was confirmed by her daughter, Cristina Cacciotti. She did not say where Harper died.

Harper’s husband, Tony Cacciotti, announced on Facebook in July that he had decided not to move Harper into hospice care, as her doctors had recommended. She had leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, in which cancer cells invade the fluid-filled membrane surrounding the brain.

Harper was a theatre actor, working with some regularity but far from well known, when she auditioned for a new CBS sitcom starring Moore as Mary Richards, a Minneapolis news producer (well, associate news producer) and the embodiment of a newly ascendant American breed – the single working woman.

The part was for her upstairs neighbour, Rhoda Morgenstern, a weight-conscious, self-deprecating, wisecrackingly blunt Jewish expatriate from New York City who would serve as a foil for Moore’s prim, sweet-tempered, every-hair-in-place and emphatically non-Jewish Mary.

Valerie Harper holding a copy of her book I, Rhoda in Washington, DC in 2013. Photograph: Kris Connor/Getty Images
Valerie Harper holding a copy of her book I, Rhoda in Washington, DC in 2013. Photograph: Kris Connor/Getty Images

Rhoda, who worked as a window dresser, was painfully envious of Mary’s good looks, her slender figure (though it should be said that she – that is, Harper – was never terribly overweight), the parade of handsome men who courted her and her classy job.

But Rhoda was also determined to assert herself in their friendship, and with the telltale brass (and accent) of a Noo Yawka, she rarely hesitated to let Mary know when a man was wrong for her, when she was being too nice or when her outfit was off kilter or, worse, predictable: “Who’d ya get that nightie from? Tricia Nixon?”

“Rhoda felt inferior to Mary; Rhoda wished she was Mary; Rhoda looked up to her,” Harper said in an interview with the Archive of American Television in 2009. “All I could do was, not being as pretty, as thin, as accomplished, was: ‘I’m a New Yorker, and I’m going to straighten this shiksa out.’”

The Mary Tyler Moore Show had its premiere in September 1970, and the characters met in the opening moments of that first episode.

The chemistry between the actors was immediately apparent and infectious, and Harper became an audience favourite. She won the Emmy award for best supporting actress in a comedy series three consecutive seasons. The idea of a spin-off show based around Rhoda was said to have surfaced as early as the second season of Mary Tyler Moore, grew louder in the third (as Harper lost weight and Rhoda grew into a more glamorous presence) and became a reality after the fourth.

In Rhoda, which made its debut in 1974 and ran until 1978, the character moves back to New York City and, as someone with acknowledged flaws and insecurities, becomes a kind of Everywoman alternative to Mary Richards’ ideal American sweetheart. She reengages with her family: a sister with a weight and self-esteem problem – a younger version of Rhoda, actually – played by Julie Kavner; Ida, a quintessentially meddling Jewish mother (Nancy Walker); and Martin, the doting papa (Harold Gould). And she finally lands a husband, Joe Gerard (David Groh).

Their wedding, a special hour-long episode in the middle of the first season, began on the morning of the ceremony, with a thrilled and nervous Rhoda reassuring her sister that a day like this was in her future as well. “Well, someday it’s going to happen for you, Brenda,” Rhoda says. “You meet a wonderful guy, fall in love, decide to get married and be just as nauseous as I am right now.”

Harper won her fourth Emmy that season, this time for best lead actress in a comedy series. In Season 3, Joe and Rhoda separated, and Rhoda completed the show’s run, through seasons four and five, as she began – single and spunky about it.

Valerie Kathryn Harper was born August 22nd, 1939, in Suffern, New York, about 32 miles north of New York City. Her father, Howard, was a salesman; her mother, Iva, was a nurse. Her heritage was a European and French Canadian mix. She was not Jewish.

The Harper family moved frequently when Valerie was young – to California, Michigan, Oregon and Jersey City, New Jersey, where she went to high school. Her parents divorced when she was a teenager, and her father’s second wife was an Italian American woman from the Bronx, New York, who Harper said was a model for Rhoda.

Valerie Harper and Ed Asner with their Emmy awards in May 1971. Photograph: AP
Valerie Harper and Ed Asner with their Emmy awards in May 1971. Photograph: AP

From an early age she aspired to be a ballet dancer, and, though never the sveltest girl en point, at 16 she landed a job in the corps de ballet at Radio City Music Hall. “I always felt like a klutz next to those other skinny girls, as we twirled our adorable little parasols,” she said in an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 1974. From there she moved to the theatre, landing roles in three Broadway shows, including Wildcat, starring Lucille Ball.

She also studied acting – John Cassavetes was one of her teachers – and supported herself with odd jobs. In 1964, she met and married Richard Schaal, an actor with the Chicago-based Second City troupe, and joined the company herself, learning improvisation techniques from its founder, Paul Sills, and his mother, acting coach Viola Spolin.

In 1970, Harper was part of the Second City ensemble that appeared on Broadway in Paul Sills’ Story Theatre, a comic adaptation of Grimm’s fairy tales laced with improv. The show ran for more than eight months, mostly while Harper was also taping the first season of Mary Tyler Moore.

Harper’s marriage to Schaal ended in divorce in 1978. Survivors include her husband, whom she married in 1987, and their daughter. Moore died in 2017 at 80. After Rhoda, Harper continued to act on television and in the movies. She starred in her own series, Valerie, in 1986 and 1987, as the working mother of three sons with an often absent husband. (He was an airline pilot.) After a salary dispute, however, the producers killed off her character in a car accident, replaced her with Sandy Duncan and renamed the series, first Valerie’s Family and later The Hogan Family. It remained on the air until 1991.

Harper won a wrongful termination suit against Lorimar Television, the production company, and was awarded compensatory damages variously reported at between $1.4 million and $1.85 million, as well as profit participation in the show.

She acted in many made-for-television films and made numerous guest appearances on series including Touched by an Angel, Sex and the City, Melrose Place and That ’70s Show. She also starred in a short-lived sitcom, City, set in a city manager’s office. That series was created by Paul Haggis, who would go on to write and direct the Oscar-winning film Crash.

“Rhoda, like most of us, was a victorious loser,” Harper once said, a sentiment that might easily be applied to herself in her final days. Her illness may have been a metastatic recurrence of lung cancer, which she survived in 2009. Afterward she spoke often in interviews on television, urging people to take advantage of their lives while they have them. “I really want Americans, and all of us, to be less afraid of death,” she said. – New York Times

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