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Monday, March 11, 2013

Valerie Harper, "I, Rhoda" and I

"Words simply can not express how the overwhelming out pouring of love and good wishes has touched my heart," actress Valerie Harper wrote her fans on Facebook, March 9th. "To every single one of you who reached out to me expressing your concern through twitter, facebook, my website, via phone, text, email, cards, letters ... I want to thank YOU for your beautiful support! DESPITE this devastating diagnosis, I'm feeling well, living normally and am forging a positive path forward!" And we are all wishing this beloved performer the best!

Ironically, it was only days before Ms Harper's diagnosis with a terminal illness became public that I had finished reading her recent autobiography, I, Rhoda. It was a breezy, enjoyable book highlighting the actress' warm, positive outlook and fond recollections. Ms Harper started as a dancer, got her big break in the Broadway chorus of the musical, Li'l Abner, and only later became interested in acting after marrying Dick Schaal and training with Second City. (She has since divorced Schaal. Harper married Tony Cacciotti in 1987.) She writes of her work in the play, Storybook Theater, in which she performed simultaneously while in the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (I was fortunate enough to have caught this show, during its Broadway run, the following summer.)

There are many gossipy little anecdotes along the way about working with Jackie Gleason; Shelley Winters versus Celeste Holme; Lucille Ball in the Broadway musical Wildcat; director Michael Bennett. But even these are told with a sweet sense of humor and affection, and without vindictiveness. 

Ms Harper writes of her political convictions, particularly her long commitment to feminism and civil rights. And of snagging the role of  Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for which Ms Harper was a three-time Emmy Award winner, as well as a Best Actress Emmy winner for its popular spinoff sitcom, Rhoda. Valerie graciously praises her co-stars on both series, especially Ms Tyler Moore. She also cites  The Mary Tyler Moore Show's groundbreaking significance when she writes: "A show that focused on a woman's career, not her family or love life was a new concept." 

Valerie Harper's work on NBC's Valerie's Family was far less of a happy experience. In fact, she was ultimately fired from the show, an event that was traumatic for its star. She understandably described it as "painful and humiliating."

I last saw Valerie Harper back on Broadway in the tragicomedy, Looped, portraying Tallulah Bankhead at a time when that legend knew she had terminal cancer, ironically. Ms Harper was triumphant in the role. This past January, she was to revive her portrayal when the play went on the road. I planned to go to Connecticut to see it. She cancelled. "Due to illness," was all she said on Facebook at that time.

Here's Ms Harper's video message to fans on YouTube:

Dialogue Valerie Harper quotes from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, between Rhoda and Phyllis (Cloris Leachman):

Phyllis tells Rhoda, condescendingly, that she's ok with Rhoda marrying her brother, Ben.
Rhoda:  Phyllis, I'm not going to marry Ben.
Phyllis: Why not? My brother is successful. He's handsome. He's intelligent.
Rhoda (matter-of-factly): He's gay.
Phyllis: Oh, Rhoda, I'm so relieved!


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