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MTM, Rhoda fans pulling for ailing Valerie Harper

Written by Barbara Vancheri on .

valerieharper250Sad, sad news:   People magazine reports Valerie Harper has brain cancer and could have just months to live. She received the news Jan. 15, she says in the magazine’s cover story. 
 
Harper has a rare condition that occurs when cancer cells spread into the fluid-filled membrane surrounding the brain. Her doctors say she has as little as three months left to live. 
 
People says in a short item on its website (much more will be in the magazine, on newsstands Friday) that Harper is resolved to face her time with courage and humor.  “I don’t think of dying,” says the actress, 73, who previously battled lung cancer in 2009. “I think of being here now.”
 
Women of a certain age will always think of Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern, the upstairs neighbor, on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Here’s hoping Harper knows how many fans are pulling for her. 
 
I spoke to her in 1995 for the story below. It was headlined: 
 
THE GREAT MOM 
HARPER IS ACTING OFF-BROADWAY AND STARRING IN A TV MOVIE 
 
mtmshowbvSay it isn’t so, Rhoda. Can it really be 25 years since Mary first flung her hat into the air and Rhoda dished about disastrous dates on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”? 
 
It has been, and actress Valerie Harper — now appearing off-Broadway — has a 12-year-old daughter who loves watching reruns of the classic, classy comedy, although it does prompt its share of puzzlers. 
 
Their conversations go like this: “Mom, look at your dress length. Look at your hair. What’s on Mary’s head? That’s a fall. What’s on your eyes? Those are lashes. Marlo was wearing double lashes, so everybody else started to.” 
 
Harper doesn’t mind being greeted by shouts of “Valerie” or “Rhoda” on the street. “A lot of them say, ‘Oh God, you’ve given me so much joy, you and your shows and your compadres. And how’s Mary and how’s Murray or Gavin?’ “ 
 
It’s like meeting newfound friends or relatives. “It is such a beautiful privilege and I enjoy it and I respect it and I am grateful for it,” she said by phone from New York. 
 
Like her 1970s TV counterpart, Harper has packed up and headed East. Although Harper and her family still have their house in Beverly Hills, she is appearing off-Broadway in “Death Defying Acts,” one-act plays by Elaine May and Woody Allen. 
 
Harper’s husband, Tony Cacciotti, is directing a one-woman play off- Broadway and their daughter, Cristina, is excelling in school after transferring from Beverly Hills High School.
 
“She’s in a fabulous school here in New York that she loves. She is very involved with volleyball now after school, and she comes home and wants to do her homework. It’s a very motivating atmosphere,” Harper said. 
 
Her daughter is one of the reasons Harper did an ABC movie, “The Great Mom Swap,” airing Saturday night at 9. 
 
“I am real tired of seeing girls as adjuncts to, and ornaments on the arms of (boys), and cheerleaders for (boys) and I’d love to see them front and center, living full, active lives, active in every way in terms of their emotional life and what they’re doing and their wishes and their dreams.” 
 
The movie is about two feuding teen-age girls who are ordered by juvenile authorities to trade families for a month. One is a rich, popular cheerleader, the other a brainy nerd who lives with her widowed mother and grandfather above their deli. 
 
Harper is the deli operator and TV veteran Sid Caesar the grandfather. Shelley Fabares plays the other mother, an overscheduled socialite who spends little time with her three children. It turns out that the moms once were friends whose relationship soured when Fabares’ character moved out of their working-class neighborhood. 
 
The script is based on a book by Betsy Haynes. “It’s very affirming of that which is best in us,” Harper said. “A lot of the work for teen-agers appeals to the worst in us.” 
 
Her own daughter, who loves “X-Files” — “it’s scary as hell but she wants to see it and why not?” — sounds like a discriminating TV viewer. “I have a lot of friends on shows; that makes it rough,” Harper said. Take ‘’Married With Children,” with pals Katey Sagal and Ed O’Neill.
 
When her daughter was 9 or 10, Harper wasn’t sure it made for appropriate viewing. “She said, ‘Mom, I know this isn’t real, this isn’t a family, this is a satire, Mom. Do you know what a satire is? This is a satire of a family, this is like a cartoon ... how families should be, they do the opposite. That’s what’s funny, it’s so unreal.’ "
 
And Harper, laughing as she recalled this adult dialogue, figured the girl was discerning enough to watch the show. 
 
Harper, who has four Emmys to her credit, is committed to “Death Defying Acts” for six months. After that, she’s thinking about doing a musical revival and maybe taking it on tour. “Several are on the table. ... I also have an original piece of material I just looked at, a mystery that’s very interesting. I may make the East Coast and theater my life for the next while.” 
 
Harper is no stranger to theater. While still in high school, she got a job as a fill-in ballerina at Radio City Music Hall. Following that, she joined the Broadway chorus line of “Li’l Abner” and other shows. For many Americans, though, she’s forever linked with television — successful and otherwise. 
 
Talking about her most recent series, quickly canceled, she said: “I really suffered with ‘The Office’ because I loved it. We did a wonderful little pilot. We did the six shows but I waited a year in between. I was on hold, I couldn’t do anything else. If it’s up to the whim of a network executive, I don’t feel like putting myself in that place at the moment. 
 
“I might if a great script came down the pike, but I don’t see it, and women of a certain age right now are being passed over,” the 55-year-old Harper said. Add to that the pleasure she’s deriving from working on the play and being back in New York. 
 
If Harper never did another thing, she’d always have Rhoda. Recounting the first-rate writing, direction and performances on “MTM,” Harper said, “I think that’s why Mary, that show, will live forever, and it has such a patina on it. It just gets better with age.” 
 

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