Remembering Valerie Harper

AFTER a long battle with cancer, actress Valerie Harper died earlier this week. The Los Angeles Times reported that “the TV star had been battling cancer since 2009 and long defied a 2013 diagnosis that gave her three months to live. Her death was confirmed Friday by the Associated Press.”

Harper shot to fame as Rhoda Morgenstern, said The Advocate, “a tough-talking, wisecracking Jewish woman from the Bronx who went from Mary Richards’ sidekick on The Mary Tyler Moore Show to helm her own spin-off, Rhoda. She won four well-earned Emmys for playing the character.”

Harper’s Rhoda was everybody’s best friend in the 1970s, the gal pal many faithful fans of The Mary Tyler Moore Show wished they had.

According to The New York Times, “Rhoda felt inferior to Mary, Rhoda wished she was Mary, Rhoda looked up to her,” Ms. Harper said in an interview with the Archive of American Television in 2009. “All I could do was, not being as pretty, as thin, as accomplished, was: ‘I’m a New Yorker, and I’m going to straighten this shiksa out.’”

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” had its premiere in September 1970, and the characters met in the opening moments of that first episode. Mary, moving into a new apartment, encounters Rhoda entering through a window from a ledge. Rhoda had been washing the window, thinking the apartment was going to be hers.

“So you’re, uh, Rhoda?” Mary says.

“Morgenstern, right.”

“And I’m Mary Richards.”

“Hello,” Rhoda says. “Get out of my apartment.”

Many gay fans spoke of the connection they felt to both the actress and the character.

According to The Advocate, “Harper filled the role of Rhoda so beautifully, it was hard to believe they were separate entities. As Harper would say, people would often yell “Hi Rhoda!” to her on the street upon recognizing her. Unlike many famous actors, she never resented the association. “I was lucky to have Rhoda,” Harper often told journalists.”

The queer identification with Rhoda was obvious: she was an outsider, a foil to the perfection that was Mary Richards. Mary was comfortable being single and as a TV news producer had “the kind of job Gloria Steinem wants you to have” — as Rhoda once put it. Rhoda was insecure and upfront about being desperate for a date on a Saturday night, and held a less-than-glamorous job as a department-store window dresser. Making the invitation for a queer identification with her complete, she rarely, if ever, lost her sense of humor. Harper’s comic timing was sheer brilliance: in their review of the first episode of Mary Tyler MooreVariety noted that Harper risked stealing the entire show.

Writer Kevin Sessums, eloquently wrote on Facebook, “On the eve of so many of our adulthoods in the 1970s, she was our Eve Arden. She was the Celeste Holm with whom we felt so at home. She was Mary’s best friend and our stand-in. We never felt quite like we could be Mary. But we all were already Rhoda. She was self-deprecating to get the laugh, but she held our laughter there inside her with such dignity. Rest in peace, dear, talented lady. And thank you.”

Playwright Charles Busch also wrote on Facebook, “Valerie Harper was everything you hoped she’d be; funny, pragmatic, vulnerable, determined, self-deprecating, curious and generous. I became quite close to herduring the year that she starred on Broadway in my play “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.”

She replaced Linda Lavin and it was a challenging role for Valerie. The character of Marjorie Taub is a rather pretentious, culturally striving upscale Manhattan doctor’s wife.

Valerie offstage and as Rhoda was the opposite of pretentious. Rhoda continually deflates people who put on airs. Valerie had to work hard at finding a way into the character. It wasn’t easy for her. It had been written very specifically for Linda Lavin. Val was determined to get the essence of this very different kind of lady and mine every laugh out of the script and she never stopped working at it. After much effort, she found the character and played the role not only on Broadway for a year but for many months on a national tour. We were fortunate having her at the helm at the Barrymore Theater during the nightmare of 9/11. The theaters were closed for nearly a week, don’t quote me on the exact amount of days, and Valerie seemed to be everywhere promoting New York and the need to combat fear and a return to normalcy.

She asked me to write her a short speech to say during the curtain call on the first night back. I can’t remember what I ended up writing but I felt a great responsibility to give Valerie Harper/Rhoda Morgenstern an appropriately down to earth message of hope. I’ve never met a celebrity who was so available to her public. It was difficult walking with her to a restaurant. She was constantly stopped by fans and she was very aware that she was not an ordinary celebrity but a kind of symbol of the underdog, the best friend and she would give each person twenty minutes. I’d be looking at my watch wondering if we’d ever get to Joe Allen’s. She always wanted to know each person’s name and what they were experiencing and who they were and about their families and what kind of work did they do.

I’ll never be nearly as generous and thoughtful as Valerie Harper but knowing her and watching her sensitivity to others made me, like so many others affected by her, strive to be a better person.”

Sessums also included heartfelt posts about Harper like the following:

BEFORE GOOGLE: Valerie Harper and Ed Asner getting their first Emmys for the Mary Tyler Moore Show from Jack Benny and Lucille Ball in 1971. Valerie receives hers at around the 1:44 mark. Valerie danced in the chorus of Lucy’s Broadway musical, Wildcat in 1960. A full-circle moment.

 

SOME JOY: Valerie Harper dancing in front of Carnegie Hall in 1955 at a protest when the hall was threatened with demolition.

Sessums recalled an anecdote, “Lou Grant looked at his staff at the end of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and said through teary eyes, “I cherish you people.” I cherished them too. I’ve thought a lot about this last moment today.”

Rest in power, Valerie.

Photo: Valerie Harper at the opening night of the musical Wicked. Pantages Theatre, Hollywood, CA. 02-21-07 – Shutterstock

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