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Valerie Harper, actress beloved as the chronically single, irrepressibly funny Rhoda Morgenstern, dies at 80

Valerie Harper, left, and Mary Tyler Moore appear in the episode of “Rhoda” titled ”Along Comes Mary.”
Valerie Harper, left, and Mary Tyler Moore appear in the episode of “Rhoda” titled ”Along Comes Mary.” (CBS Photo Archive/CBS via Getty Images)

Valerie Harper, the actress best known for her performances on two of the most popular sitcoms of the 1970s as the chronically single, irrepressibly funny New Yorker Rhoda Morgenstern, died Aug. 30 at 80.

Her daughter, Cristina Cacciotti, confirmed her death. Other details were not immediately available. Ms. Harper had successfully battled lung cancer but revealed in 2013 a new diagnosis of brain cancer. In public, she long continued to display the pluck that had endeared her to millions of TV viewers for generations.

Ms. Harper amassed four Emmys during her time as Rhoda — three for her sidekick role on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which aired on CBS from 1970 to 1977, and one as the lead character in the spinoff “Rhoda,” which ran from 1974 to 1978 on the same network.

She continued to act on television and in the theater for more than three decades, her stage roles ranging from the flamboyant actress Tallulah Bankhead to former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. But she was forever known as Rhoda — a reflection of the preservative power of reruns, and the enduring appeal of her signature character.

Rhoda appeared in the first episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” one of the earliest television programs to feature single working women. “You’re gonna make it after all” became the promise of its theme song.

Ms. Harper played the down-on-her-luck, down-on-herself single Jewish girl who had left the Bronx for Minneapolis — “where it’s cold,” Rhoda later explains, “and I figured I’d keep better.”

(Many observers have remarked on the fact that, unlike Rhoda, Ms. Harper was neither Jewish nor from the Bronx. She said she based her portrayal of Rhoda in part on her Italian American stepmother.)

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Rhoda meets Mary Richards, played by the show’s namesake, when Mary moves into the turreted Victorian house where Rhoda has fashioned a home in the attic, fringe beads tinkling in the doorway. In short order, they become bosom friends and foils.

“Mare,” as Rhoda calls her buddy, is a Midwestern sweetheart, the perfect one with a gorgeous figure and glamorous job as a local television producer. Rhoda, a department store window dresser, is the dumpy one with bad luck in love and a predilection for food.

“You’re having a lousy streak,” Rhoda says to Mary in one episode, coaching her friend through a rare rough spot. “I happen to be having a terrific streak. Soon the world will be back to normal. Tomorrow you will meet a crown head of Europe and marry. I will have a fat attack, eat 3,000 peanut butter cups and die.”

As the show continued, Ms. Harper slimmed down and turned herself — and Rhoda — into a knockout beauty, fantastic in headscarves and hoop earrings. She credited “Mary Tyler Moore Show” actor Gavin MacLeod with turning her on to Weight Watchers. Moore, she said, encouraged the transformation.

“You don’t want to be my sidekick all your life,” Ms. Harper recalled her saying.

With her spinoff show, Ms. Harper transitioned to leading lady. The first episode of “Rhoda” sailed to the top of the Nielsen ratings — an extraordinary feat for a new program. In the first season, Rhoda returns to New York, is reunited with her family and finally snags a guy, demolition man Joe Gerard (played by David Groh).

Their 1974 television marriage was one of the most hyped and widely watched television events of the era. But the show’s popularity gradually dimmed, and it was noted that viewers seemed to prefer Rhoda before she had come into her own. Joe was written out of the program through a breakup, and the show ended not long after.

In a way, the divorce was one more example of the frailty that made Rhoda so real. “A good friend once put it best,” Ms. Harper told the Chicago Tribune. “Mary Richards is the woman you wish you were. Rhoda is the woman you probably are.”

Chorus parts

Valerie Kathryn Harper was born Aug. 22, 1939, in Suffern, N.Y. She moved around as a child, following her father in his career as a lighting salesman. Her parents later divorced.

She danced from an early age and, as a teenager, got a part at New York’s Radio City Music Hall corps de ballet twirling about behind the Rockettes. She later scored chorus parts in Broadway productions including “Take Me Along” (with Jackie Gleason) and “Wildcat” (with Lucille Ball).

In 1964, Ms. Harper married Richard Schaal, a member of the Second City improvisational theater company. She, too, joined the troupe and moved with Schaal to Los Angeles, where he succeeded while she stagnated.

“Things were going well for Dick,” Ms. Harper told Time magazine, “but I just sat in Laurel Canyon sobbing and eating Sara Lee cakes all day.”

All of that changed when she auditioned for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Ms. Harper had relatively little television experience at the time, and more than 50 actresses tried out for the part, according to Time magazine. When Ms. Harper appeared, there was no question. “That’s Rhoda,” Moore was reported to have said.

Schaal appeared in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” as several characters, including Chuckles the Clown — whose demise is recounted in the 1975 episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” widely considered one of the funniest episodes in television history. He and Ms. Harper later divorced.

In 1987, she married producer Tony Cacciotti. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

From 1986 to 1987, Ms. Harper played the wife of an airline pilot in “Valerie,” a popular NBC sitcom that was renamed “The Hogan Family” after Ms. Harper was fired from the show over a dispute with the production company.

A jury later decided that she was wrongfully terminated and awarded her more than $1 million in damages as well as a portion of profits from the show.

Ms. Harper was the author of “Today I Am a Ma’am and Other Musings On Life, Beauty, and Growing Older” (2001) and a memoir, “I, Rhoda” (2013). In 2002, she lost to actress Melissa Gilbert in a campaign for president of the Screen Actors Guild.

There were efforts over the years to revive the fun and friendship of the turreted house in Minneapolis, among them a lackluster TV movie “Mary and Rhoda” (2000) that reintroduced Mary as a congressman’s widow and Ms. Harper as the ex-wife of a Frenchman.

Ms. Harper professed her satisfaction at having been, from the beginning of her career until the end, one and the same with Rhoda Morgenstern. For she knew that the appeal of an imperfect, lovable single girl would never fade. Rhoda will be there “when I’m long gone,” Ms. Harper once said, “and that’s a wonderful thing.”

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