Valerie Harper, who stole hearts and busted TV taboos as the brash, self-deprecating Rhoda Morgenstern on back-to-back hit sitcoms in the 1970s, has died aged 80.
Longtime family friend Dan Watt confirmed Harper died on Friday, adding the family was not immediately releasing any further details. She had been suffering from cancer for years, and her husband said recently he had been advised to put her in hospice care.
Harper was a breakout star on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, then the lead of her own series, Rhoda.
She won three consecutive Emmys (1971-73) as supporting actress on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and another for outstanding lead actress for Rhoda, which ran from 1974 to 78.
In 2013, she first revealed that she had been diagnosed with brain cancer and had been told by her doctors she had as little as three months to live.
But she delighted her many fans by refusing to despair. “I’m not dying until I do,” Harper said in an interview on NBC’s Today show. “I promise I won’t.” Harper did outlive her famous co-star: Mary Tyler Moore died in January 2017. Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman and Betty White are among the former cast members who survive her.
In recent years, Harper’s other appearances included on American Dad!, The Simpsons and Two Broke Girls.
Harper was a chorus dancer on Broadway as a teen before moving into comedy and improv when, in 1970, she auditioned for the part of a Bronx-born Jewish girl who would be a neighbour and pal of Minneapolis news producer Mary Richards on a new sitcom for CBS.
It seemed a long shot for the young, unknown actress. As she recalled, “I’m not Jewish, not from New York, and I have a small shiksa nose.” And she had almost no TV experience.
But Harper, who arrived for her audition some 20 pounds overweight, may have clinched the role when she blurted out in admiration to the show’s tall, slender star: “Look at you in white pants without a long jacket to cover your behind!”
It was exactly the sort of thing Rhoda would say to “Mar”, as Harper recalled in her 2013 memoir – I, Rhoda. Harper was signed without a screentest.
The show that resulted was a groundbreaking hit, with comically relatable Rhoda one big reason.
“Women really identified with Rhoda because her problems and fears were theirs,” Harper said in her book. “Despite the fact that she was the butt of most of her own jokes, so to speak … her confident swagger masked her insecurity. Rhoda never gave up.”
Neither did Harper, who confronted her own insecurities with similar moxie.
“I was always a little overweight,” she once told Associated Press. “I’d say, ‘Hello, I’m Valerie Harper and I’m overweight.’ I’d say it quickly before they could.”
But as The Mary Tyler Moore Show evolved, so did Rhoda. Rhoda trimmed down and glammed up, while never losing her comic step. The audience loved her more than ever.
A spinoff seemed inevitable.
The premiere of Rhoda that September 1974 was the week’s top-rated show, getting a 42% share of audience against competition including Monday Night Football on ABC. And a few weeks later, when Rhoda and her fiance, Joe, were wed in a one-hour special episode, more than 52 million people – half of the US viewing audience – tuned in.
During The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Harper appeared in her first major film, the comedy Freebie and the Bean, and later was cast in Blame It on Rio and an adaptation of Neil Simon’s play Chapter Two.
In 1986, she returned to series TV with a family sitcom called Valerie. While not matching her past critical successes, the show proved popular. But in the summer of 1987, Harper and her manager, Tony Cacciotti, whom she had married a few months earlier, were embroiled in a highly publicized feud with Lorimar Telepictures, the show’s production company, and its network, NBC.
In a dispute over salary demands, Harper had refused to report for work, missing one episode. The episode was filmed without her. She was back on duty the following week, only to be abruptly dumped and replaced by actress Sandy Duncan. The show was renamed Valerie’s Family and then The Hogan Family.
Meanwhile, lawsuits and countersuits flew. In September 1988, a jury decided that Harper was wrongfully fired. She was awarded $1.4 million compensation plus profit participation in the show (which continued without Harper until 1991).
“I felt vindicated,” Harper wrote in her memoir. “I had beaten Lorimar and reclaimed my reputation.”
During the 1990s, Harper starred in a pair of short-lived sitcoms (one of which, City, was created by future Oscar-winner Paul Haggis) and made guest appearances on series including Melrose Place, Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives.
She reunited with Moore in a 2000 TV film, Mary and Rhoda. In 2013, there was an even grander reunion: Harper and Moore were back together along with fellow MTM alumnae Leachman, White and Georgia Engel to tape an episode of White’s hit comedy, Hot in Cleveland. It was the ensemble’s first acting job together in more than 30 years and during a news conference Harper cited a valuable lesson: The character of Rhoda, she said, pointing to Moore, “taught me to thank your lucky stars for a fabulous friend.”