Valerie Harper, Rhoda On 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show,' Dies At 80

Aug 31, 2019
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A beloved sidekick has died. Valerie Harper who, of course, played Rhoda Morgenstern on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," has died in Los Angeles. She was 80 years old.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ELIZABETH BLAIR: 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 awards 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 lose.

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: 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: 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 PLAY, "LOOPED")

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

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Rector.

(LAUGHTER)

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 (laughter).

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.