Stage Actor and TV Icon Valerie Harper Dies at 80
Best known as Rhoda, Valerie Harper started as a dancer and never left the stage behind.
Valerie Harper, whose Rhoda Morgenstern character is an icon of television, died on Friday August 30, eight days after her 80th birthday.
“My dad has asked me to pass on this message,” Harper’s daughter Cristina Cacciotti, confirmed on Twitter. “’My beautiful caring wife of nearly 40 years has passed away at 10:06 a.m., after years of fighting cancer. She will never, ever be forgotten. Rest In Peace, mia Valeria. -Anthony.’”
The Emmy winning actor was battling lung and brain cancer, according to Variety. When her brain cancer was first diagnosed in January 2013, Harper was told she had three months to live. While she was never cancer-free, she responded well enough to treatment to compete on Dancing with the Stars. Harper started in show business as a dancer, and her defining TV role was as a sidekick to a star who’d also started as a dancer.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which debuted in 1970, starred Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards, a single woman rising in a local newsroom. Harper played her best friend, Rhoda, who’d moved to the Twin Cities from New York and said all the things Mary was too proper to say. The series elevated the sitcom genre and influenced generations of TV writers. Mary Tyler Moore died in January 2017. The series also starred Ed Asner, Ted Knight, Cloris Leachman, Betty White and Gavin MacLeod. Harper played Morgenstern for four seasons before being spun off to star in Rhoda from 1974 to 1978.
Rhoda still holds the record for being the only show to get a No. 1 Nielsen rating with its pilot episode. The 1974 episode where Rhoda marries Joe was watched by more than half of the U.S. viewing audience. “My name is Rhoda Morgenstern. I was born in the Bronx, N.Y., in December 1941. I’ve always felt responsible for World War II,” each episode began. The series also co-starred Nancy Walker, Harold Gould and Julie Kavner, who played Rhoda’s sister Brenda and now plays Marge Simpson on The Simpsons. Harper reunited with Moore in a 2000 TV movie, Mary and Rhoda, and they both reunited with Leachman, White and Georgia Engel in a 2013 episode of Hot in Cleveland. Kavner and Harper have also reunited as Harper has voiced several characters on The Simpsons in its most recent seasons.
Harper won four Emmy Awards for playing Rhoda, three during the run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and one for season 1 of Rhoda. She was nominated for Emmys for the following three seasons and won a Golden Globe.
Valerie Harper was born in Suffern, New York, on Aug. 22, 1939. Her mother was a nurse and her father was a salesman, and the family moved all over the country while she was growing up. She moved to New York City to study ballet. By the time she was 15, she was dancing specialty numbers at Radio City Music Hall. At 18, she was in the chorus of the Broadway musical Li’l Abner. She also appeared in the 1959 movie adaptation. Harper made her Broadway debut as part of the ensemble in the 1959 play Take Me Along, which starred Jackie Gleason. She was 20. In 1960, she danced in the play Wildcat, which starred Lucille Ball. She was also a dancer in the Broadway shows Subways Are for Sleeping (1961) and Something Different (1967).
Harper began performing improv comedy when a group of Second City players from Chicago played a residence in Greenwich Village. Harper married the troupe’s Richard Schaal in 1964. She also toured with Second City.
During the run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Harper appeared in the film comedy Freebie and the Bean (1974), which starred Alan Arkin and The Godfather‘s James Caan. She also acted in the film Blame It on Rio and a movie adaptation of Neil Simon’s play Chapter Two.
Harper returned to TV sitcoms in 1986 with Valerie. In the summer of 1987, Harper’s character was killed off, and Sandy Duncan replaced her as the headliner. Harper sued Lorimar Telepictures, the show’s production company, and the NBC network, for wrongful firing. She won and the jury awarded her $1.4 million.
Harper returned to Broadway in 2001, taking over Linda Lavin’s (Barney Miller, Alice, The Sopranos) part in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. Harper played Golda Meir in the one-woman show Golda’s Balcony. She was nominated for a Tony for her portrayal of Tallulah Bankhead in the 2008 world premiere of Matthew Lombardo’s Looped at Pasadena Playhouse.
Harper made guest appearances on TV series such as Touched By an Angel, Melrose Place, Drop Dead Diva, American Dad!, Two Broke Girls, Melissa & Joey, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, 2 Broke Girls, Childrens Hospital, Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives.
Harper was involved in AIDS charities, The Hunger Project, the Rape Treatment Center of Santa Monica, United Farm Workers, the Child Welfare League of America and the food distribution program Love Is Feeding Everyone, which she co-founded with actor Dennis Weaver (McCloud).
Harper and Schaal divorced in 1978. She is survived by Cacciotti, who she married in 1987, her daughter Cristina, and stepdaughter, actress Wendy Schaal.
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Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.