Harper, who has died aged 80, amassed four Emmys during her time as Rhoda – three for her sidekick role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired on CBS from 1970 to 1977, and one as the lead character in the spin-off Rhoda, which ran from 1974 to 1978 on the same network.
She continued to act on television and in the theatre for more than three decades, her stage roles ranging from the flamboyant actor Tallulah Bankhead to former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. But she was forever known as Rhoda – a reflection of the preservative power of reruns, and the enduring appeal of her signature character.
Rhoda appeared in the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, one of the earliest television programmes to feature single working women. “You’re gonna make it after all” became the promise of its theme song.
Harper played the down-on-her-luck, down-on-herself single Jewish girl who had left the Bronx for Minneapolis – “where it’s cold,” Rhoda later explains, “and I figured I’d keep better” – and befriends Mary Richards, played by the show’s namesake. Mary is a glamorous midwestern sweetheart working as a local television producer; Rhoda is a department store window dresser who is unlucky in love. Harper herself was neither Jewish nor from the Bronx. She said she based her portrayal of Rhoda in part on her Italian-American stepmother.
The show’s success led to a spin-off, and Harper transitioned to leading lady. The first episode of Rhoda sailed to the top of the Nielsen ratings – an extraordinary feat for a new show. In the first season, Rhoda returns to New York, is reunited with her family and finally snags a guy, demolition man Joe Gerard (played by David Groh).
Their 1974 television marriage was one of the most hyped and widely watched television events of the era. But the show’s popularity gradually dimmed, and it was noted that viewers seemed to prefer Rhoda before she had come into her own. Joe was written out of the show through a break-up, and the series ended not long after.
Valerie Harper was born in 1939, in Suffern, New York. She moved around as a child, following her father in his career as a lighting salesman. Her parents later divorced.
She danced from an early age and, as a teenager, got a part at New York’s Radio City Music Hall corps de ballet twirling about behind the Rockettes. She later scored chorus parts in Broadway productions including Take Me Along (with Jackie Gleason) and Wildcat (with Lucille Ball).
In 1964 Harper married Richard Schaal, a member of the Second City improvisational theatre company. She too joined the troupe and moved with Schaal to Los Angeles, where he succeeded while she stagnated.
All of that changed when she auditioned for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Harper had relatively little television experience at the time, and more than 50 actors tried out for the part. When Harper appeared, there was no question. “That’s Rhoda,” Moore reportedly said.
Schaal appeared in The Mary Tyler Moore Show as several characters, including Chuckles the Clown, whose demise is recounted in the 1975 episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust”, widely considered one of the funniest episodes in television history. He and Harper later divorced.
In 1986-87 Harper played the wife of an airline pilot in Valerie, a popular NBC sitcom that was renamed The Hogan Family after Harper was fired from the show over a dispute with the production company. A jury later decided that she was wrongfully terminated and awarded her more than $1m in damages as well as a portion of profits from the show.
Harper was the author of Today I Am a Ma’am and Other Musings On Life, Beauty, and Growing Older (2001) and a memoir, I, Rhoda (2013). In 2002 she lost to actor Melissa Gilbert in a campaign to become president of the Screen Actors Guild.
There were efforts over the years to revive the on-screen chemistry between Harper and Tyler Moore, among them a lacklustre TV movie Mary and Rhoda (2000) that reintroduced the latter as a congressman’s widow and Harper as the ex-wife of a Frenchman.
Since 2009 Harper had suffered with lung cancer and in 2013 revealed a new diagnosis of brain cancer. In public she long continued to display the pluck that had endeared her to millions of TV viewers for generations.
She is survived by her husband, producer Tony Cacciotti, whom she married in 1987, and their daughter.
Valerie Harper, actor, born 22 August 1939, died 30 August 2019
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