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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.