Valerie Harper, Who Played Beloved TV Sidekick Rhoda, Dies At 80

Aug 31, 2019
Originally published on August 31, 2019 11:06 am

Updated at 8:08 p.m. ET

One of TV's most beloved sidekicks has died. Valerie Harper, best known for playing Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, died Friday in Los Angeles. She was 80.

As the blunt, self-deprecating Rhoda, Harper created one of the most beloved sitcom characters of the 1970s. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a ratings powerhouse, centered on best friends Rhoda and Mary Richards, two single women making their way through life, love and career.

Rhoda was the perfect foil for the buttoned-up Mary, played by Mary Tyler Moore. "Rhoda had this wonderful quality of saying the unsayable," Harper told NPR in 2010. She would say things "that Mary Richards would not say because she's too much of a lady or, you know, it's not polite. Rhoda, the New Yorker from the Bronx, would just say it straight out."

The show set high standards for every sitcom that followed, and generations of TV writers and actors cite it as a major influence, including Tina Fey, Lena Dunham and Modern Family star Julie Bowen. Robert Thompson, who teaches television and popular culture at Syracuse University, says Harper and Moore were one of the great comedy teams of all time: "We had Lucy and Ethel — they were kind of the Romulus and Remus of TV girlfriends — and we get a lot thereafter: Laverne and Shirley, and Cagney and Lacey. But Rhoda and Mary, when they were on stage together, even though they weren't dancing, it was kind of like watching [Fred] Astaire and [Ginger] Rogers. They just worked perfectly together."

Harper's daughter Cristina Cacciotti tweeted her father Anthony Cacciotti's statement saying, "My beautiful caring wife of nearly 40 years has passed away ... Rest In Peace, mia Valeria."

Moore show co-star Ed Asner extolled Harper's acting talent and called her "a great friend ... Goodnight, beautiful. I'll see you soon."

Valerie Harper was born in Suffern, N.Y. Her father was a lighting salesman, her mother was a nurse and her first love was ballet (she originally wanted to be a dancer). Harper got her first job as a dancer with Radio City Music Hall when she was a teenager. In the late 1950s, she worked as a chorus girl in Broadway musicals; later, to hone her comedy chops, she did improv with Second City. But Rhoda put Harper in the spotlight.

In her memoir, I, Rhoda, Harper (pictured here in 2013) writes that she was "determined to define [Rhoda's] style" and help soften her sharp edge.
Kris Connor / Getty Images

In her memoir, I, Rhoda, Harper writes that she was "determined to define [Rhoda's] style" and help soften her sharp edge. Rhoda may have joked about being frumpy and hating to diet, but she was also fashion forward: She wore hippie-chic outfits with colorful head scarves and hand-crafted jewelry, wide-legged pants and long vests, but also sleek, contemporary dresses and suits in bold colors and prints. Harper writes that "Rhoda's gypsy-woman look became an intrinsic part of her quirky character," even though Harper herself "had never in my life worn a head scarf."

Beyond the punchlines, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a breakthrough for women on television and much has been written about the show's impact on feminism. As career-minded, single women in their 30s, Mary and Rhoda's self-worth wasn't shaped by men. Harper told author Mollie Gregory (Women Who Run the Show) that the characters "were created and written as multifaceted human beings with all kinds of talents, frailties, quirks, and virtues. The women were not written as foils or props for men."

After winning three Emmys in a row, Harper's sidekick stepped into the spotlight. The spinoff Rhoda opened with this introduction: "My name is Rhoda Morgenstern. I was born in the Bronx, N.Y., in December 1941. I've always felt responsible for World War II. The first thing I remember liking that liked me back was food." The show debuted to huge ratings in 1974. (Many consider the wedding episode, in which Rhoda gets married, a TV sitcom classic.) Rhoda gave Harper her fourth Emmy.

After years doing sitcoms, Harper began taking on more serious roles: She co-wrote and starred in All Under Heaven, a one-woman play about writer and Nobel laureate Pearl Buck, and she portrayed the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in Golda's Balcony, another solo show. But Harper will be remembered most for her impeccable comic timing, a skill that earned her praise as the glamorous, hard-living actress Tallulah Bankhead in the play Looped. In 2010, Harper told NPR she had some reservations about repeating some of Bankhead's salty language. "The f-bomb was all over," she said. "And every time I did a show, I'd say, 'Don't bring the kiddies to see Rhoda.' "

Harper earned a Tony nomination for her performance in Looped. New York Times critic Charles Isherwood wrote that Harper "is not really a natural fit for the role — both the sandpaper voice and the flouncing hauteur seem applied from without — but she gives an enjoyably big, blustery performance, nailing every last laugh with a professionalism that the real Bankhead would surely admire."

In 2009, Harper had a cancerous tumor removed from her lung, and in early 2013, doctors told her the cancer had spread to areas surrounding the brain and that she probably wouldn't make it through the spring. In typical Harper fashion, she remained upbeat in interviews. As a guest on the TV talk show The Doctors in March 2013, she said, "More than anything I'm living in the moment. I really want Americans — and all of us — to be less afraid of death and know that it's a passage. Don't go to the funeral before the day of the funeral. While you're living, live."

Long after The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Valerie Harper often talked about how grateful and lucky she was for landing the role of Rhoda. Millions of viewers felt exactly the same way.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

One of TV's most beloved sidekicks has died. Valerie Harper, best known for playing Rhoda Morgenstern on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," died this morning in Los Angeles. She was 80 years old. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this remembrance.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Blunt, insecure, self-deprecating and stylish - Rhoda Morgenstern was the friend you wish you had yourself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")

VALERIE HARPER: (As Rhoda) You know that award thing we're going to on Saturday?

MARY TYLER MOORE: (As Mary) Yeah.

HARPER: (As Rhoda) I'm not going.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: (As Rhoda) Mary, what I mean to say is right now, I can think of better ways to spend Saturday than watching you win an award, you know?

MOORE: (As Mary) I'm not going to win.

HARPER: (As Rhoda) You're not.

MOORE: (As Mary) No, probably not.

HARPER: (As Rhoda) In that case, I'll go with you.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Valerie Harper told NPR in 2010 that Rhoda was the perfect foil for the buttoned-up Mary Richards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HARPER: Rhoda had this wonderful quality of saying the unsayable. Things that Mary Richards would not say because she's too much of a lady or, you know, it's not polite, Rhoda, the New Yorker from the Bronx, would just say it straight out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")

HARPER: (As Rhoda) Tell me. What else are you taking that's nicer than what I got?

MOORE: (As Mary) Shall we go?

HARPER: (As Rhoda) I bet your bathing suits are cuter than mine, too.

MOORE: (As Mary) Oh, Rhoda, they are not.

HARPER: (As Rhoda) Bikinis, right?

MOORE: (As Mary) Yes.

HARPER: (As Rhoda) Mine look like sweatsuits with short pants.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: They were one of TV's great comedy teams, says Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson.

ROBERT THOMPSON: I mean, we had Lucy and Ethel. They were kind of the Romulus and Remus of TV girlfriends, and we'd get a lot thereafter - Laverne and Shirley and Cagney and Lacey. But Rhoda and Mary were - I don't know. When they were on stage together, even though they weren't dancing, it was kind of like watching Astaire and Rogers. They just worked perfectly together.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")

MOORE: (As Mary) In spite of everything, you're really a pretty hard person to dislike.

HARPER: (As Rhoda) I know what you mean. I'm having a hard time hating you too.

MOORE: (As Mary) We'll both have to work on it.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: In her memoir, Valerie Harper talked about how she obsessed over how to define Rhoda. She helped give her that hippy, chic look with colorful scarves and flowing skirts and pants. She wrote that she also tried to soften her edge. As Rhoda, Valerie Harper won three Emmys in a row in the early 1970s, and then the sidekick stepped into the spotlight. Rhoda Morgenstern got her own show and another Emmy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RHODA")

HARPER: (As Rhoda) My name is Rhoda Morgenstern. I was born in the Bronx, N.Y., in December, 1941. I've always felt responsible for World War II. The first thing I remember liking that liked me back was food.

BLAIR: Valerie Harper was born in Suffern, N.Y. Her father was a lighting salesman. Her mother was a nurse. Harper's first love was ballet. Her first job - a dancer with Radio City Music Hall when she was a teenager. In the late 1950s, she was a chorus girl in Broadway musicals. To hone her comedy chops, she did improv with Second City, where she met her first husband, Dick Schaal. She later married actor and TV producer Tony Cacciotti. After years of doing sitcoms, Harper took on some serious roles. She co-wrote and starred in a one-woman play about Nobel Prize winner Pearl Buck. She portrayed the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in another solo show, "Golda's Balcony."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOLDA'S BALCONY")

HARPER: (As Golda) Citizens of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces, our sons, have entered the fight.

BLAIR: But Valerie Harper will be remembered most for her impeccable comic timing - a skill she put to very good use when she played the glamorous, hard-living actress Tallulah Bankhead in the play "Looped."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARPER: (As Tallulah) And so, Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rectum...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Rector.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Rector.

HARPER: (As Tallulah) Well, now, that's what I said.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) No, you said rectum.

HARPER: (As Tallulah) Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: (As Tallulah) Well, that gives it quite a different meaning.

BLAIR: Valerie Harper was nominated for a Tony Award for "Looped" in 2010. She told NPR before taking the role, she had some reservations about repeating some of Tallulah Bankhead's salty language.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HARPER: But I got around it. And when we - and we presented her as she was in life. The F-bomb was all over. And every time I did a show, I'd say, don't bring the kiddies to see Rhoda.

BLAIR: In 2009, Valerie Harper had a cancerous tumor removed from her lung. In early 2013, she was told the cancer had spread to areas surrounding the brain and that she probably wouldn't make it through the spring. In typical Harper fashion, she remained upbeat in interviews like this one, on the syndicated TV talk show "The Doctors."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DOCTORS")

HARPER: And more than anything, I'm living in the moment. I really want Americans and all of us to be less afraid of death and know that it's a passage but that - don't go to the funeral before the day of the funeral. While you're living, live.

(APPLAUSE)

BLAIR: Long after "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Valerie Harper talked about how grateful and lucky she felt for landing the role of Rhoda, who she called as downright relatable as they come and a character she loved. Millions of female viewers felt exactly the same way.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.