Valerie Harper, TV's Rhoda Morgenstern, Dies at 80

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Valerie Harper

She starred on Mary Tyler Moore's show as her best friend and then on her own CBS sitcom as a brash and beloved New Yorker.

Valerie Harper, the resilient sitcom star whose nine-season run in the 1970s as wisecracking straight-shooter Rhoda Morgenstern made her one of the most beloved TV actresses of her era, has died after a courageous battle with cancer. She was 80.

Harper, who collected four Emmy Awards and one Golden Globe for playing the brash New Yorker on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then on her own spinoff series Rhoda, died Friday morning, her family told KABC-TV entertainment reporter George Pennacchio.

Cristina Cacciotti, Harper's daughter, wrote on Twitter that her father, Tony, asked to share this statement: "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."

The actress was told by doctors in January 2013 that she had leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, an incurable condition in which cancer cells spread into the membrane surrounding the brain. She was given as little as three months to live, but eight months later, she revealed that her cancer was near remission.

Harper allowed NBC News to film her for a documentary and accepted an invitation to appear on ABC's Dancing With the Stars. "The doctors want me to exercise!" the former ballet dancer said.

She appeared on the syndicated show The Doctors in March 2013 to discuss her illness. "I'm a big mouth. … I really want Americans and all of us to be less afraid of death, know that it's a passage," she said. "But don't go to the funeral before the day of the funeral. While you're living, live."

In 2009, doctors had removed a tumor from her right lung. The actress never smoked. “I’m well past my expiration date already. … I’ve had a good run. What more can I ask for?” she said.

Harper returned to work in a 2017 short film, My Mom and the Girl, playing a mother faced with Alzheimer's disease, and did voice work on The Simpsons and American Dad!

Years earlier, Harper appeared as a dancer opposite Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason on Broadway and starred for two seasons on the series Valerie before being fired amid a highly public salary dispute with NBC and Lorimar Television.

In 2010, she earned a Tony nomination for portraying bawdy 1940s actress Tallulah Bankhead in the comedy Looped.

While working in a play in a cozy theater on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles, Harper was spotted by famed casting director and CBS vice president Ethel Winant and asked to audition for Mary Tyler Moore's new show, set to bow on CBS in 1970.

“It was the easiest, most pleasant audition process I ever went through, and it had this extraordinary outcome,” Harper told the Archive of American Television in a 2009 interview. “It was the wind in the sails of my entire career.”

Harper’s self-deprecating Rhoda worked as a window dresser in a Minneapolis department store and rented the loft apartment in the same house in which Mary had just secured a room. With Rhoda an out-of-shape, bandana-wearing Jewish girl from The Bronx and Mary an all-too-courteous, impeccably dressed Presbyterian from the Midwest, the two were opposites who did not get along at first.

However, the single women quickly became best pals, and in 2000, Time magazine called their relationship “one of the most renowned friendships in TV.” (Moore, who died in January 2017, said she was “devastated” when Harper phoned to tell her that she had incurable cancer.)

After appearing in 92 of the 168 episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Harper was given her own series to start the 1974-75 TV season by MTM Enterprises, the independent production company owned by Moore and her then-husband, Grant Tinker.

In the spinoff, Rhoda returns to New York, reunites with her parents (Nancy Walker and Harold Gould) and sister Brenda (Julie Kavner) and, at long last, finds love when she meets divorced construction executive Joe Gerard (David Groh).

Rhoda debuted on Sept. 9, 1974, and was a huge hit right out of the gate, becoming the first series to bow at No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings. In the eighth week, her wedding with Joe drew 52 million viewers, at the time second in history to only the I Love Lucy episode in January 1953 in which Little Ricky is born.

In a nifty example of cross-promotion, MTM characters talked about going to the wedding on their show and Moore, Ed Asner, Gavin MacLeod, Cloris Leachman and Georgia Engel attended the big event, held in Rhoda’s parents’ apartment.

During an ABC Monday Night Football broadcast airing opposite the hourlong wedding episode, announcer Howard Cosell joked that he hadn’t been invited to the ceremony and before a commercial break said, “Let’s get over to Rhoda’s wedding quick. The chicken liver is getting rancid.”

Harper accepted the best actress comedy Emmy for her work that season in what she called “true Rhoda fashion, dressed in a top made from an antique embroidered piano shawl,” she wrote in I, Rhoda, her memoir that was published in 2013.

But by the third season, the producers felt the show needed another direction.

“Maybe the audience wasn’t bored — yet — but we figured that at some time in the future it was inevitable, the way we were going,” producer Charlotte Brown told TV Guide in 1976. “Everything was so nice for our Rhoda in her happily married life. She had no vulnerability; she wasn’t the underdog anymore. We kept ending up with plots that featured the funny insecurities of poor Brenda.”

Rhoda and Joe started arguing, they separated and then divorced in season four. Viewers deserted the series, and Rhoda was canceled midway through its fifth season, in December 1978, with four episodes in the can.

“My biggest regret was that we hadn’t been given an opportunity to write a final episode of Rhoda,” she wrote in her book. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show had wrapped up with a perfect, bittersweet and amusing finale on which I was thrilled to be able to appear. I wish that Rhoda had been given the same opportunity.”

Harper was born on Aug. 22, 1939, in Suffern, New York, raised Catholic by her parents, Howard and Ida. Her father was a lighting salesman (his company put the bulbs inside the Holland Tunnel) and her mother was a nurse. Because of her dad’s job, the family moved often and lived in such towns as South Orange, New Jersey; Pasadena; Monroe, Michigan; Ashland. Oregon; and Jersey City, New Jersey.

“I guess you’d call me a Jersey girl,” she said.

Harper took ballet lessons at a place that worked out of Carnegie Hall and attended Quintano’s School for Young Professionals in Manhattan with fellow future actors Sal Mineo, Carol Linley and Tuesday Weld.

At 16, she landed a job as a member of the Corps de Ballet dancers that performed four or five times a day between the movie screenings at Radio City Music Hall. Other entertainment included magicians and dog acts.

Harper made her Broadway debut in 1956 as a dancer in the musical comedy Li’l Abner, becoming a favorite of director-producer-choreographer Michael Kidd. He employed her in the chorus for Destry Rides Again, starring Andy Griffith, Take Me Along with Gleason, the Ball-toplined Wildcat and Subways Are for Sleeping, starring Orson Bean.

Her roommate, actress Arlene Golonka, suggested Harper try acting and audition for the Second City revue, which had just moved from Chicago to New York. She joined the cast, which included actor Dick Schaal, and they married a few months later in 1964 (they divorced in 1978).

“He was my mentor,” Harper told People in 1975. “He totally brought me into acting. He’s read me lines for years and been nothing but supportive. He absolutely built the character of Rhoda with me.”

The couple worked on a daytime talk show with bandleader Skitch Henderson, then moved from their Greenwich Village apartment above a laundromat to Los Angeles in 1968.

She and Schaal wrote for Love, American Style, and she landed jobs on such shows as The Doctors, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, Columbo and Playboy After Dark.

“But once I got onto The Mary Tyler Moore Show, everything transformed,” she said.

Harper returned to series television in 1986 with Valerie, playing a suburban Chicago mother working and raising three sons (the oldest was 17-year-old Jason Bateman) while her husband, a pilot (Josh Taylor), was often away.

In the second season, an episode in which Bateman and his ex-girlfriend consider having sex featured the first primetime use of the word “condom.” NBC issued a parental advisory warning and suggested that adults watch the show with their kids.

With Valerie gaining momentum in the ratings, Harper and Tony Cacciotti, her personal trainer and second husband, sought salary increases and a larger cut of future syndication revenue but were denied. They refused to come to work.

Lorimar then fired Harper and claimed she was a pain to work with. The actress took NBC and the producers to court for breach of contract and filed a libel suit, and in 1988 a jury awarded Harper $1.4 million in damages from Lorimar as well as a share of the show’s profits.

“If I were a new actress, my career would have been over, but I was 18 years in,” she said in the TV Archive interview. “A lot of writers were saying, ‘Valerie? Difficult? What?’ We went to court, they lost, big time. And you go on.”

Harper’s character was killed off in a car crash, and Sandy Duncan came on board as the children’s aunt and surrogate mom.

In between Rhoda and Valerie, Harper appeared in the 1980 telefilms Fun and Games, a serious look at sexual harassment in the workplace, and director Paul Newman’s The Shadow Box.

Her film credits include Li’l Abner (1959), Freebie and the Bean (1974), The Last Married Couple in America (1980) and Blame It on Rio (1984). She reunited with Moore for the ABC telefilm Mary and Rhoda (2000) and has worked on Desperate Housewives. More recently, she had guest appearances on 2 Broke Girls, Melissa & Joey and Hot in Cleveland.

Offscreen, Harper fought alongside fellow feminists Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. She ran for president of the Screen Actors Guild in 2002 but lost to Melissa Gilbert.

In the TV Archive interview, Harper recalled attending an ice show as a child and realizing what she wanted to do for a living.

“It was a moment,” she said. “The lights were great, the audience, the theatrical experience … I just knew it. I said to myself, ‘No matter what it is, I am going to be in show business.’ ”