Say the name Valerie Harper to most people and the response you invariably get is “Rhoda.”
After all, she did win four Emmy Awards playing the unlucky-in-love, self-deprecating sitcom character in the 1970s, first as sidekick on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and later on her own starring vehicle spinoff.
While she remained appreciative of her success with the role of her career, every time we would meet for an interview, Harper would always emphasize that she was really a creature of the theater. And whenever she would tour or try out a play headed for New York, she made a point of having a whistle stop in Palm Beach County, an area for which she had a particular affection.
On Friday, Harper passed away, succumbing to leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, lung cancer and brain cancer which which she was diagnosed in 2013. At the time, she was given another three to six months to live, but she dismissed and defied such projections, working until this year. Harper was 80 at the time of her death, a week after her birthday.
I first saw her on Broadway in late 1970 in Paul Sills’ Story Theatre, a series of improvised Grimm’s fairy tales that were later recorded and broadcast on television. It was clear then that she had a special performance quality, a playfulness and joy of motion. Not surprisingly, Harper began her career as a dancer, first at Radio City Music Hall and then in such musicals as Li’l Abner, Wildcat and Take Me Along.
She was discovered by a casting agent for the part of wisecracking, Jewish, New Yawky Rhoda and won the role, even though she is not Jewish, nor did she grow up in New York. OK, she was a wisecracker; that part of the role is not a stretch.
She was an instant hit on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, winning three supporting performer Emmys in a row (1971-73) and one for the lead on Rhoda. Between the two series, she played Rhoda for nine years, which made her indelibly associated with the character.
In 1986, she starred in a new family sitcom, called simply Valerie. It achieved some popularity, based on her viewer appeal, but a year later Harper and her manager, Tony Cacciotti, whom she had married a few months earlier, were enmeshed in a highly publicized feud with Lorimar Telepictures, the show’s production company, and its network, NBC.
Her salary dispute led to Harper’s dismissal and, ultimately to a $1.4 million judgment in her favor. Still, she gained a reputation as being difficult and work offers slowed. Eventually, she starred in two more series – City and Missing Persons – but neither got much traction.
Along the way, Harper had movie roles in Freebie and the Bean, Blame it on Rio and an adaptation of Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, where she reverted to form, playing a sidekick to the star, Marsha Mason.
With the exception of television guest appearances, Harper spent much of the latter part of her career in the theater, including about a year in the replacement cast of Charles Busch’s sophisticated comedy, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, on Broadway.
Other roles leaned towards the dramatic, as she kept trying to escape the typecasting as Rhoda Morgenstern. She certainly had the acting chops, as she demonstrated in the one-woman show All Under Heaven, which she co-wrote in 1998, playing The Good Earth novelist Pearl S. Buck. She played the Royal Poinciana Playhouse with it and eventually took it off-Broadway, winning over skeptical critics.
“Yeah, they lie in wait. It’s just that if you come from television, any television person has to prove herself,” she once told me. “I did, too, even though I spent most of my life in theater.”
Seven years later, she and her husband produced a tour of Golda’s Balcony, as Israeli prime minister Golda Meir – and 43 other roles. The tour had a successful stop in Fort Lauderdale at the Parker Playhouse in 2005.
Still looking for a triumphant return to Broadway, Harper commissioned a biographical play called Looped, a portrait of irascible, outspoken Tallulah Bankhead. It tried out in 2010 at the Cuillo Centre in West Palm Beach, the venue now operated by Palm Beach Dramaworks. She took the work to Broadway where it lasted only a month, but that enough to earn her a Tony nomination, the only one of her career.
With The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda continuing in syndication, they will remain the prime components of Harper’s legacy, but her body of work included so much more variety and breadth.