Valerie Harper on life before, during and after ‘Rhoda’

March 7, 2013

Among my favorite television memories is the sight of Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern in her bridal gown running through the streets of New York on the way to her wedding.

I watched that episode again, which first aired Oct. 28, 1974 on CBS, on YouTube Wednesday after hearing the news that Harper has terminal brain cancer; her doctors say she has three months or less to live. The 73-year-old actress was diagnosed in January with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare cancer found in the fluid-filled membrane around the brain, which may be related to the lung cancer that Harper, a lifelong nonsmoker, survived in 2009.


Valerie Harper helped celebrate Betty White’s 90th birthday. (Sam Mircovich – Reuters)

It was also in January that Harper’s memoir, “I, Rhoda,” was published by Simon & Schuster. “I first met Rhoda Morgenstern in the spring of 1970,” Harper writes in the prologue and describes the character she would go on to play for nine television seasons as “free-spirited, funny, and from the Bronx.” She would also win four Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe for the role.

When “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” premiered Sept. 19, 1970, television changed. It was shows like the groundbreaking MTM and later, its spin-off, “Rhoda,” that sparked Jim McKairnes’ interest in TV as a career.

“These shows didn’t just make you laugh, they made you think and feel,” said McKairnes, a former CBS executive and now TV consultant and author who teaches courses on television for DePaul University. “These were character comedies, not sitcoms,” he told me.

McKairnes was fortunate to spend part of a day with Harper in February 2009 when he interviewed her for the American Television Academy of Arts and Sciences Foundation’s Archive of American Television, an oral history project.

Before the taping began, she asked what kind of shot it would be. “Two T’s?” she asked, and then explained to McKairnes “two T’s” meant “two tits” or from the chest up.

“Nothing was off the table,” he said about the interview. Harper was “funny and animated” and “so forthright” in discussing her life before, during and after Rhoda.

She started her career as a dancer on Broadway and then joined Chicago’s Second City Theater before moving to Hollywood where Rhoda was her first major role on television. She later had parts in a variety of movies, including “Chapter Two,” and guest-starred in shows from “Sex and the City” to “Drop Dead Divas.” She returned to Broadway in 2007, playing Golda Meir in “Golda’s Balcony” and then Tallulah Bankhead in “Looped,” for which she was nominated for a Tony Award.

Harper also talked about her lawsuit for breach of contract against Lorimar Television that occurred after she was fired from the show bearing her name in the summer of 1987; a jury returned a unanimous decision in Harper’s favor. “We’ve buried the hatchet,” she said about the people involved in the case. “It was a thing that happened, and it hasn’t harmed me.”

After the taping, McKairnes gave Harper a ride back to the shop where her car was being repaired. “She said, ‘tell me about you,’” McKairnes said. “Then she directed me to cross four lanes of traffic.” He didn’t want to wimp out, but he’d had a “massive wreck” three years earlier. “I didn’t want to be known as the guy who killed Rhoda.”

The drive turned into a tour of Los Angeles, he said, as she pointed out landmarks and memories from her past and he shared a favorite anecdote about his mother that made Harper “laugh hysterically.”

When McKairnes dropped her off, he drove to the door of the garage rather than have her get out at the curb, as she tried to insist. He explained that his mother would not approve. After she thanked him and said, “Jim McKairnes, happy St. Patrick’s Day! And to me, too, I’m part Irish,” he pulled away from the garage but waited out at the curb, unbeknownst to Harper, to make sure her car was ready.

Near the end of the almost three hours of tape shot that day, Harper talks about her philosophy of life: “Carpe diem! Seize the day,” she says to McKairnes. “Live fully in the instant.”

McKairnes then asks her, with just a minute left, how she’d like to be remembered.

“She tried her best,” Harper said with a huge laugh. She certainly has.

Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

 

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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