Entertainment Television

Tuesday 17 September 2019

Obituary: Valerie Harper

Award-winning actress who starred in the wisecracking sitcom 'Rhoda'

Funny gal: Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern in ‘Rhoda’
Funny gal: Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern in ‘Rhoda’

Valerie Harper, who has died aged 80, played Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its 1970s spin-off, Rhoda, creating one of television's most memorable brash, Bronx-bred Jewish-American comedy princesses, although she was neither Jewish nor a native New Yorker.

One of television's best-loved sidekicks, Valerie Harper initially played Rhoda as the frumpy friend of the glamorous Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore), the cool career girl cutting a swathe through a television newsroom in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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By contrast, as the girl in the flat above, Valerie Harper looked every inch the lovable loser, unlucky in love, worrying about her weight and wrapping herself in a grubby dressing-gown - the actress described Rhoda's bohemian style as "camouflage dressing" - while off-duty from her job as a window-dresser at a department store.

"Women really identified with Rhoda because her problems and fears were theirs," Valerie Harper explained many years later in her best-selling memoir.

"Despite the fact that she was the butt of most of her own jokes, so to speak, running down her looks and her potential, she never acted defeated. Her confident swagger masked her insecurity. Rhoda never gave up."

Valerie Harper herself grew in self-belief after winning three Emmy awards for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and in 1974 Rhoda, now more chic and self-assured, was given her own series.

In Rhoda, she returns to New York for a short holiday lodging with her shy younger sister Brenda, played by Julie Kavner. But she meets and marries Joe (David Groh), a handsome demolition man, and stays. When the on-screen couple later divorced, the ratings faltered and Rhoda was eventually cancelled after five series. But in its heyday it was acclaimed as one of the most successful spin-offs in American television history, not least for Valerie Harper's fiery portrayal of the central character.

As The New York Times critic noted, viewers identified with "the schlep she was to begin with - something we all feel about ourselves. Like you and me, she's uncertain and battered… and we cheer her on, as - with all her foibles - she tends to cope and prevail."

Rhoda was first shown on this side of the Atlantic in 1974 and fans immediately fell for Rhoda's "funny, quacking, Jewish-girl resilience".

Valerie Harper enjoyed borrowing her character's wisecracking shtick: before recording a take, she invariably inquired of the director what kind of shot it would be. "Two Ts?" she would ask, explaining that "two Ts" meant "two tits", or from the chest up.

Valerie Harper was born on August 22, 1939, in Suffern, a village some 30 miles from New York, the daughter of a sales executive whose job with a lighting company required him to move himself and his family from town to town.

After sojourns in Oregon, Michigan and California, they finally settled in New Jersey, only for Valerie's parents to divorce when she was 17. She was educated at Lincoln High School in Jersey City.

A cradle Catholic, she had lost interest in religion as a teenager and devoted herself instead to dancing, graduating from the corps de ballet at the Radio City Music Hall to the chorus line of the musical Li'l Abner during its run in Las Vegas and, in 1959, the Hollywood film version.

She supplemented her wages as a dancer in various Broadway musicals by taking casual jobs in telesales and working as a hat-check girl before joining the Second City acting troupe in Chicago in 1964. There she met and married her fellow actor Richard Schaal, moving in 1969 to Los Angeles, where he founded his own theatrical company.

The following year she successfully auditioned for The Mary Tyler Moore Show - a hugely popular show in the Seventies.

"She croaked out one line," one producer remembered, "and we had what we'd been looking for".

It was a hit from the start, Valerie Harper's Rhoda striking a particularly responsive chord with viewers, some of whom wrote in with advice such as how to cope with her stereotypical Jewish mother.

At the end of the show's first series, she won an Emmy award for best supporting actress in a comedy, an achievement she repeated for the following two seasons.

The Rhoda series brought Valerie Harper a fourth Emmy, in 1975, for outstanding lead actress, and a Golden Globe, for Best TV Actress.

The show ran for five series and she subsequently starred in Valerie (1986-87), another sitcom that was more remarkable for its behind-the-scenes intrigues than the on-screen action.

She had been cast as Valerie Hogan, a working mother with three boys and a husband who, as an airline pilot, was usually away from home.

Valerie Harper divorced her first husband Richard Schaal in 1978. In 1987 she married Tony Cacciotti, who survives her with their daughter Cristina.

Valerie Harper died on August 30, 2019.

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