Valerie Harper: You Will Be Missed

This month, my blog’s theme is “Valerie.” I apologize ahead of time to any of you who have the lyrics of the Amy Winehouse song running through your head all month. It’s a great song, but every January blog I wrote kept the song in my brain for a few days.

I decided to begin the series, and the new year, looking at the career of Valerie Harper who passed away in 2019.

Valerie Harper lived to be 80, despite being diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013.

Harper recalled attending an ice-skating show as a child and deciding she wanted to be involved in show business of some type. She loved the lighting, the audience, and the entire theatrical experience. She began her career as a dancer. Joining the Radio City Hall dancers, she transitioned into acting.

She eventually made her way to the Second City troupe in Chicago. After perfecting her comedy skills, she was on to Broadway, appearing in Dear Liar, Story Theatre, Something Different, and Metamorphosis.

Valerie appeared in a few movies and television series during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

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Richard Schaal and Valerie Harper

From 1964-1978, she was married to Richard Schaal. The couple wrote a script for Love American Style in 1969 called “Love and the Visitor.” Harper also acted in the segment “Love and the Housekeeper” in 1971.

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Her big break came when she was offered the role of Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ethel Winant spotted her in a play and asked her to audition for the role. For four years, she played Mary’s best friend who lives upstairs. Rhoda was a window decorator for a large department store. The characters of Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern were total opposites, but they had a tremendous chemistry and became best friends.

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Although Mary was the nicest person on the show, we all wanted Rhoda to be our best friend. Her humor and attitude toward life made the world a more fun place to be.

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In 1974, Valerie was rewarded with her own show, Rhoda. She marries and returns to New York. Harper won four Emmys during her time as Rhoda between the two shows. After capturing Rhoda’s Jewish persona so accurately, many people were surprised to learn she was not Jewish and grew up Catholic.

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Some of the funniest moments on either of the sitcoms was Rhoda’s relationship with her mother Ida, played by Nancy Walker. Rhoda loved her mother, but was driven absolutely crazy by her.

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When Rhoda was abruptly cancelled, Harper made a cluster of made-for-tv movies.

In 1986, Harper was cast as the lead in the show Valerie’s Family. After being abruptly fired from the show in 1987, she was replaced with Sandy Duncan as the children’s aunt. The plot line was that Valerie died in a car accident and Sandy comes to help out. The show changed its name to The Hogan Family and continued until 1991. Harper sued Lorimar Productions for breach of contract and was awarded $1.4 million plus part of the show’s profits.

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In 1990, City debuted starring Harper. The show only lasted one season. I have never seen this show, but most of the reviews I read were by people who loved it. One write-up on imdb.com concluded “This was the funniest sitcom Valerie Harper has done (except of course for the Mary Tyler Moore Show). The city manager’s office that provided the setting is the perfect locale for the parade of crazies that give comedic impetus to this type of show, The funniest was James Lorinz as the security guard (in one episode, he was convinced that white-out was being stolen to aid illegal immigration; to prove his point, he painted his entire body with it). One of the Mysteries of the Universe is why this failed while “The Hogan Family,” a profoundly mediocre show, lasted several years.”

From that point on, Harper did not star in any other television series, but she did show up in a variety of series and made-for-tv movies, including a recurring role on The Office in 1995.

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Valerie contributed to many causes during her career. She was a big advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment in the ‘70s and ‘80s. She co-founded L.I.F.E. with Dennis Weaver, a nonprofit that gave food to the hungry in Los Angeles.

Valerie re-married in 1987, wedding Tony Cacciotti whom she remained with until her death.

Harper continued in stage work throughout her career. From 2005-2006, she portrayed Golda Meir, touring throughout the US.

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She accepted the role of Claire Bremmer on Desperate Housewives in 2011. In 2013, she returned to her dancing roots, appearing on Dancing with the Stars, partnered with Tristan MacManus.

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In 2009, Valerie was diagnosed with lung cancer. She fought the illness, but in March of 2013, she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, given only months to live. Those couple of months turned into six years. Harper discussed her disease in 2015: “I talk to the cells all the time. I say, ‘What the hell are you doing? Not only are you destructive, coming in and ruining all my plans, but you are dumb! You are killing the host. If you take a low profile, I can live with you, here on the edge of the sword. You can fall one way or the other.’ Right now, things are working fantastically. Tomorrow, I don’t know.” Her philosophy was “We’re all terminal; none of us are getting out of this alive.”

Harper was fondly remembered by her co-stars when she passed away. Mary Tyler Moore who died before Harper, said she was devastated the day Valerie called her to tell her about the cancer. Ed Asner, who played Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Show, remembered his years working with Harper: “A beautiful woman, a wonderful actress, a great friend. . . . Her brilliance burst through and shined its light upon all of us. Goodnight beautiful. I’ll see you soon.”

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Alyssa Milano who played her daughter on an episode of Melrose Place, said “Valerie Harper was always the most gracious and kindest actor on the set. She will be missed. Rest in Peace. ”

Valerie Harper had a unique gift of making us laugh, not at her characters, but with her characters. We could all relate to her. She was a role model for how to keep a positive attitude about living with a terminal illness. It’s a rare person who learns to work hard while making it look easy, fight for causes that help others, inspire others to live better while she was dying, and infuse laughter into every aspect of her life. We will truly miss you Valerie Harper, but we will remember you for all the gifts you left behind for us.

Rizzoli and Isles: Gal Pals

We wind up our crime-solving duos series this week. I had decided to concentrate primarily on classic television for this blog. That was not anything I had to define my first few years, but now in my fourth year, I had to come up with a definition for myself about what classic television is and isn’t. For me, classic television includes television shows that are no longer on the air except in syndication. They are also shows that have something worth writing about and re-watching. Recently I wrote about a show that was on the air a few months ago, Whiskey Cavalier. It still fits the definition because it was cancelled and I think is well worth re-watching.

Today we are learning about a more recent show as well: Rizzoli and Isles. Technically, this was an ensemble cast, but Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles definitely have the same “best pal” vibe that I Spy projects. This show was more about their friendship than it was the crimes they solved, but they did solve a lot of crimes.

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I loved this show; maybe this one was special because so many of the crime shows feature males.  I can’t think of too many series where women were the focus: Cagney and Lacey is the only crime drama that comes to mind. The show was a bit different in schedule because it was typically on between June and December. In all 105 episodes were produced.

Airing on TNT in 2010, Rizzoli and Isles is the story of Boston police detective Jane Rizzoli (Angie Harmon) and medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander). They are very different characters, much like Robinson and Scott in I Spy.

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Dr. Maura Isles

Rizzoli is much more like Robinson while Isles is more like Scott. Coming from a middle-class Italian family, Rizzoli says what’s on her mind, she’s more wise than smart. She’s confident and can be a bit outspoken but is loyal.

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Jane Rizzoli

Isles is thoughtful and very intellectual. She comes from a wealthy background and has a pet tortoise named Bass. She can be awkward in social situations. Rizzoli roles out of bed and grabs a solid tee, while Isles is glamorous and dresses to a T. During the seven seasons the show was on the air, they developed a very close friendship. It’s also refreshing because they aren’t 20; they are approaching or entering their forties. They’ve been busy with life and careers.

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Alyssa Milano was one of the actresses considered for the role of Rizzoli, but Harmon was cast and then auditioned with Alexander who was hired next. Harmon discussed Alexander’s audition, “We were trying to find the woman to play Maura Isles; it was a no brainer when Sasha came in. We just knew it was her, and she did such a fantastic job.”

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The rest of the cast includes Rizzoli’s ex-partner, Sargent Vince Korsak (Bruce McGill),

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Rizzoli’s brother Frankie (Jordan Bridges), Rizzoli’s mother Angela (Lorraine Bracco),

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and Rizzoli’s current partner Barry Frost (Lee Thompson Young).

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In later seasons FBI Gabriel Dean (Billy Burke) appeared as did crime scene analyst Nina Holiday (Idara Victor).  

The shows were written by Tess Gerritsen and the concept was developed in her novels, The Surgeon and The Apprentice. From back stories we learn the story from these novels. Charles Hoyt is a serial killer. Previously a doctor, he uses his medical knowledge to torture couples and then keeps the female corpse for his own use. Rizzoli and Korsak are on his trail. Hoyt knocks Jane unconscious and as he is ready to slit her throat, Korsak locates them and shoots, but does not kill, Hoyt. Jane decides Korsak could no longer trust her because she got captured and she thought he would not be able to see her without thinking of the vulnerable position he found her in.  So she asks for another partner. She begins working with Barry, but she and Korsak still share life on a daily basis.

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In the pilot episode, Jane and Maura are investigating another killer who is using Hoyt’s methods. It later turns out he is someone who knew Hoyt and continued his killing spree. Hoyt is able to escape prison and works with Stark. Eventually Jane kills Stark and wounds Hoyt. They move on from this case to investigating all types of crimes, often working with Frankie and Korsak. Korsak who is toying with retiring also owns a bar/restaurant, The Dirty Robber, where the crew hangs out. Angela manages the place.

“RIZZOLI & ISLES””Cold as Ice” / Ep 408TNTPh: Doug Hyun

I have to say what I enjoyed about the show was the mystery and figuring it out but also the witty banter and friendship between Jane and Maura. Jane and Korsak also have a very close relationship. It seems like ever since Sesame Street debuted, there has been this need for shows to speed up the pace. Watching Rizzoli and Isles is like reading a good 19th century novel. The timing is slowed down. We have opportunities to watch the characters interact and bond, and we get to know them well. They actually have long conversations and talk about their feelings.

I did try to read the Gerritsen books, but without the comedic relief, I found them too dark and could never get through the first one without getting totally creeped out. I’m sure she’s a gifted novelist, and she was credited as writer on all the show scripts, but the gore in the first book was too hard for me to read through.

“RIZZOLI & ISLES” Lee Thompson Young Angie Harmon “Boston Strangler Redux” / Ep 101 TNT Ph: Danny Feld

During season four, Lee Thompson Young passed away from suicide. His character was killed on the show in a car crash. Alexander talked about how hard it was for the cast to continue. She said his absence was felt on the set. “They have not replaced him and don’t intend to do so anytime soon, so his seat remains empty and it’s something that we have had to look at and struggle with.” There are some poignant moments when Jane stops by his desk and doesn’t say anything.

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Both Harmon and Alexander got to try their hand at directing an episode during the final year.

The show ranked in the top five cable programs for five seasons and was the number one basic cable program during its fifth season. So why the cancellation? TNT apparently wanted to rebrand itself as the network that offered edgier shows. At least the writers had some notice and were able to satisfy viewers by sending each character into a new journey. Korsak gets to finally retire and he’s newly married. Frankie and Nina get engaged. Jane begins a relationship with an FBI officer and decides to accept a job at Quantico.

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Maura is finally ready to leave her career and take a chance at becoming a writer. She is going to Paris to live for inspiration. However, at the end of the show, we find out Jane is coming along for a two-week vacation.

Maura and Jane might be physically separated, but they will always be best friends. They have changed each other. Jane has drawn Maura out of her shell, allowing her to take the risk of writing. Maura has softened Jane and allowed her to become more vulnerable as she begins a new love relationship.

Rizzoli & Isles

Everything about this show just seemed to gel so well. The characters were believable. With all the interactions, they appeared like a family. The cast felt that also. Alexander talked about their working relationships. “I think the chemistry between Jane and Maura and all the cast make it a little family.”

Alexander discussed her role as Maura: “I have really enjoyed playing Dr. Maura Isles. I really can say in seven years, I never had a boring day playing her. It was never tedious for me to play her. She’s a sunny personality and curious and interested and funny. I was constantly amused by the role. I will miss playing her.” She also discussed the way her character and Rizzoli interacted. “Some of my favorite scenes on the show have been those where she’s (Maura) spewing some strange vocabulary and weird analysis, and Jane is looking at her like she has no idea what she’s saying, and she (Jane) says, ‘Can we just go get ice cream?’”

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Harmon also discussed how she felt about the crew. She talked about how the relationship with Isles developed and grew. She said she thought part of that came from the fact that “there’s a lot more character to these characters. We see their back stories and we see their present situations, and that was a lot more interesting than just the regular procedural. . . . It’s more of a roller coaster ride. It’s definitely got a lot more grit to it. And, we don’t pretend to be the smartest people there. We’re not like, ‘This is how we did it, and now we’re just going to show you how to go catch them.’ The audience gets to figure it all out with us.”

Harmon appreciated Jane. She said “Rizzoli is just an intricate and important part of my life. I don’t know that I’m going to be able to just say good-bye to her. I’m hoping that a part of her hangs around in my personality for the rest of my life.”

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She also expounded on the rest of the cast. “Jordan is hilarious. Jordan will do 50 takes. He has become like my little brother.”

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“We’ve all become very, very close in our roles and Lorraine is like my mom. I call her Mom. . . .I text her, ‘Ma, the girls are coming in town. When can you have dinner? And they think of her as a surrogate matriarch. We’ve become very, very close.”

About McGill she said, “I’ve known Bruce most of my life. I think it’ll be the hardest for probably Lorraine, Bruce and me . . . I guess the show business gods keep bringing us back together, and I’m so thankful for it. I’ve learned so much from him. . . . I adore him.”

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I adore all of them. Luckily, for fans, all the episodes have come out on DVDs. This is one of those shows I look forward to watching again to reconnect with old friends.

Who’s the Boss? On This Show Everyone Acts Like a Boss

As I finish 1980s Rewind today, I chose a heart-warming show that followed the typical formula by standing it on its head, Who’s the Boss. The show was created by Martin Cohan and Blake Hunter. Cohan was a producer and writer for The Bob Newhart Show and wrote for many other shows including The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Hunter wrote and produced episodes of WKRP in Cincinnati.

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Instead of the successful senator who hires a housekeeper like The Farmer’s Daughter, on this show Angela Bower (Judith Light), an advertising executive, hires Tony Micelli (Tony Danza), a former baseball player (St. Louis Cardinals) to be her housekeeper. Instead of Uncle Charlie like My Three Sons, the show has Mona (Katherine Helmond), Angela’s mother giving wise advice and sarcastic comments. Tony has a daughter Samantha (Alyssa Milano) and Angela has a son Jonathan (Danny Pintauro). All together they form one typical family unit. The show was on ABC for eight years from 1984-1992, so viewers literally watched the kids grow up. Tony is laid back and flexible, while Angela is a bit more uptight and organized. Angela and Tony functioned as parents on the show, but they also had the possibility of a romance between them.

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After a shoulder injury, Tony is forced to change careers. He wants his daughter to experience a better life. The Bowers live in Connecticut in an upscale neighborhood. Originally, the show was titled “You’re the Boss,” but it was changed to plant a question of who really ran the house. However, viewers all realized that the kids were really the bosses.

WHO’S THE BOSS? – “Angela Gets Fired: Part II” – Airdate: September 30, 1986. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)ALYSSA MILANO;DANNY PINTAURO;KATHERINE HELMOND

The cast jelled very well together. They had their differences of opinion, but they grew close and experienced the normal family ups and downs when five very different people spend so much time together. Mona’s wit and targeted observations kept things light and funny.

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During most of the series, Tony and Angela try to avoid the romance developing between them. They both date other people. They also become best friends, relying on each other as a husband and wife would. They often discuss issues the kids are having. They both “parent” each of the kids. They both grow and change during the course of the series. Angela becomes less tense and risks opening her own firm. Tony enrolls in college. Producers always seem to waiver “between should they get together or not.” Shows like Castle, That Girl, and Friends struggled with keeping the magic alive and keeping the show realistic. Somehow the producers and writers for Who’s the Boss kept the tension and potential romance alive for seven years. During the last season, they realize they are in love with each other.

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There were many stars who appeared on the show during the years including Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Mike Tyson, and Leslie Nielsen. One of the episodes was when Robert Mandan appeared on a few episodes as Mona’s love interest. Mandan had played her husband on the show Soap.

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The theme song lyrics were written by creators Cohan and Hunter. Titled “Brand New Life,” the music was composed by Larry Carlton and Robert Kraft. Three different versions were used over the years: Larry Weiss sang it from 1984-1986; Steve Wariner from 1986-1989; and Jonathan Wolff from 1989-1992.

WHO’S THE BOSS? – “Samantha’s Growing Up” – Season One – Airdate: January 8, 1985. (American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.) ALYSSA MILANO, JUDITH LIGHT, KATHERINE HELMOND, TONY DANZA

Early reviews were lukewarm. Critics liked it but they were a bit dismissive of it being a real hit. Viewers didn’t agree. They loved the show. During its tenure, the show was nominated for more than forty awards, including ten Primetime Emmys and five Golden Globes. From 1985-1989, it ranked in the top ten.

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The show aired on Tuesday nights for the first seven years. In the fall of 1991, the network moved the show to Saturday nights against The Golden Girls. The ratings went down after the move and the network decided to cancel the show. There was a great debate about whether Tony and Angela should marry in the finale. Sam had married earlier in the season and Tony and Angela admitted they were in love. However, Danza was opposed to the marriage and there was a concern that if a wedding took place, it might affect the syndication options. Instead of a wedding, Tony and Angela break up. But in the last scene, Tony is at Angela’s house applying for the job of housekeeper, very similar to the very first episode of the show.

The show created a spinoff but in a far-reaching definition of spinoff. In one episode, Leah Remini was a friend of Sam’s, a homeless model. Beginning and ending in 1989, the show Living Dolls starred Remini, Michael Learned, and Halle Berry.

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While Tony went back to school during the series, Danza emulated him in real life. He graduated with an education degree. He wrote a book, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High. He taught English at a school in Philadelphia.

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The cast of Who’s the Boss was a close-knit one, and they still keep in touch almost twenty years later. Light commented that they are all still close and she said she probably kept in touch with Tony the most. “He checks in all the time just to see how the kids are doing, he’s very sweet.” Danza once discussed how emotional it was for him to give Milano away as a bride on the show. “She was like my little girl, you know. She started on this show when she was 10. Now she’s 19, we married her off. I mean, it’s easy to get emotional, it really is.”

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Milano was also very close to Light. A couple of years ago, the two stars ran into each other for an event, and Milano tweeted, “Nothing makes me happier than seeing Judith Light. Nothing.”

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They were all saddened by the death of Katherine Helmond in March of 2019. Danza also discussed Helmond in an interview. “Katherine Helmond was a remarkable human being and an extraordinary artist; generous, gracious, charming and profoundly funny.” After her death, he commented that “She was such an influence on me. No matter what problem I had, I could go to her. Very few people could match her. She was a consummate professional. She never made a mistake and she always got the laugh. She was the sexy older lady who could keep up with the young people. She just had a way about her.”

Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1646629a) Who’s The Boss , Katherine Helmond, Tony Danza Film and Television

Light also discussed Helmond. “She taught me so much about life and inspired me indelibly by watching her work. Katherine was a gift to our business and to the world and will be deeply missed.”

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Her television grandchildren also remembered her fondly. Milano paid the following tribute to her: “My beautiful, kind, funny, gracious, compassionate rock. You were an instrumental part of my life. You taught me to hold my head above the marsh! You taught me to do anything for a laugh! What an example you were!” Pintauro said she was “the best TV grandmother a boy could ask for. Even still, I’m just as devastated as I was when I lost my real grandma. A beautiful soul has left us for the next chapter, may you make them laugh Katherine!”

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This is another one of those undervalued shows. Although there were some really great shows on television during the mid and late 1980s, some of the top-rated shows on in this decade included Knot’s Landing, Charles in Charge, Diff’rent Strokes, Silver Spoons, and Facts of Life. Who’s the Boss was a much better written and acted show than any of these. The show combined the best elements of sitcoms and created a fresh approach to a family comedy.