30 August 2019
“My name is Rhoda Morgenstern. I was born in the Bronx, New York, in December 1941. I’ve always felt responsible for World War II.” These voiceover lines began each episode of the television sitcom Rhoda, in which the title character was played with great gusto and wit by Valerie Harper, who has died of cancer aged 80.
“The first thing I remember liking that liked me back was food,” the introduction continued. “I had a bad puberty. It lasted 17 years . . . I decided to move out of the house when I was 24. My mother still refers to this as the time I ran away from home.”
After the run of Rhoda ended, Harper appeared in three dud films in showy supporting roles: Chapter Two (1979), The Last Married Couple in America (1980) and Blame It On Rio (1984). But she was most active on television.
Apart from regularly popping in as Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she starred in another sitcom called Valerie, playing the mother of three teenage boys whose husband, an airline pilot, is away most of the time. However, following a salary dispute, she was fired after the second series in 1987.
Harper sued NBC and Lorimar for breach of contract and unfair dismissal and was awarded $1.4m plus 12.5 % of the show’s profits. The series continued, renamed Valerie’s Family and then The Hogan Family, without her, with the explanation that her character had died, only to be replaced by Sandy Duncan, who had played her sister-in-law.
There followed guest spots in Missing Persons (1994), Melrose Place (1998), Sex and the City (1999), That ’70s Show (2001) and Desperate Housewives (2011), among others.
In 2000, Harper and Tyler Moore were reunited for a TV special, Mary and Rhoda – both characters now with grown-up daughters – with the intention of launching a new series. But it failed to rekindle the inspiration of the past, and the idea was abandoned.
After being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009, Harper continued to work almost as much as before. In 2010 she took on the strenuous role of Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway in Looped, produced by her second husband, Tony Cacciotti, whom she married in 1987, her first marriage having ended in divorce.
The New York Times critic praised her “enjoyably big, blustery performance, nailing every last laugh with a professionalism that the real Bankhead would surely admire.”
In 2013, Harper announced that she had a rare condition in which cancer cells spread into the membranes surrounding the brain. She appeared as often as she could on TV shows to talk about the illness.