“My mother’s maiden name was McConnell. Her ancestors are Canadian, Irish, Scotch and Welsh. And, on the Harper side, they are French, English and, according to my sister, American Indian. But, I think her addition of American Indian came after she saw Jeff Chandler (who was Jewish) play Cochise.”
That quote, from a TV fan question and answer column in the July 28th, 1973 edition of the Daytona Beach Morning Journal, exemplifies better than any other, I think, the devil-may-care wit and honest style that embodied Valerie Harper. It is just that humor, with a dash of relentless fortitude and guile, that helped land her the comedic and iconic role of a lifetime, that of the irrepressible and indefatigable Rhoda Morgenstern, beginning in 1970 as best friend to Mary Tyler Moore on her self-titled show and concluding the run in 1977 after four seasons on her own spin-off series Rhoda. As usual, though, the successful run as a beloved TV character serves as a veil around the artist, masking the true talent of the performer. The film and TV industry is obsessed with the notion of having types as well as passion for putting them on labels to easily stick on the backs of their employee talent. Similarly, audiences are groomed to accept the actor in certain roles while looking askance, or maybe with just a smidge of happy shock, when a rare deviation from the norm is done. Well, Harper proved throughout a nearly six decade career that she could both successfully avoid the trap of the stereotype and enjoy it immensely. Broadway dancer, legitimate theatre actress, feature film star, a list of starring TV series and movie credits too voluminous to mention here (or anywhere outside of a 1,000 page book). Oh yeah, and that seven-year stint as the sarcasm-tinged Jewish New Yorker who took the world on and beat it back in style.
Harper was born Valerie Kathryn Harper on August 22nd, 1939 in Suffern, New York while the family was on a business trip. Dad Howard Donald Harper was a Lighting sales manager, while mom Iva Mildred (nee McConnell) was a “Home Executive”. Harper, in her 2013 autobiography I, Rhoda, said her mom had quite the disdain for the term “housewife” so she adopted the more business-sounding “Home Executive”.In fact, in reading her book one gets the impression that the entire family was just as quirky and embracing of the positive as Valerie showed throughout her life. Valerie’s name comes from the fact that her dad was off at a tennis match when Iva went into labor and was still carrying the program when he arrived at the Good Samaritan Hospital. The tourney featured women’s doubles matches and the champions were Valerie Scott and Kay Stammers. On Harper’s birth weight being at a “hefty eight pounds, fourteen ounces”, she recalled her mom, during conversations surrounding her figure, would slip into a low tone voice (“as if imparting a disgraceful secret”) and say “Valerie, you’re short-waisted”. Rather than perceiving this as an insult and be scarred by it, she accepted it (feeling she had her mom’s genes so it was just life) and even joked about it as only she could. “How bad could it be? I also hoped that, as I grew, my waist would get longer and my pronunciation of S’s would improve.” While I did not have my own speech difficulties as a child, I did have awkwardness physically, being an exceptionally tall boy throughout my growth. And I had a lazy left eye that required a period of eye patch wearing. Not the best attribute to have while attempting to build social skills. This just might’ve been the reason why I connected with Valerie both as a fan all the way back to my first vague recollections of the MTM show and Rhoda. Like Ms. Morgenstern, I developed a “I am who I am and, if you want to like me, you just have to accept” mentality over the years. But I digress. Onward and upward with the story.
Ebullience abounded in the Harper household. Never more so personified with the practice of the “Air Bath” as Valerie put it. “At bath time my mother would switch on the radio, often something dynamic like a Sousa march, and give us what she called “Air Baths”, where we would run, skip and dance naked around the house until we got in the tub.” This, as well as a constant encouragement from her parents for Valerie and her siblings to be open and try new things, seems to have been the driving forces for Harper both in the beginning and throughout her career. Always pushing envelopes and going full gusto with all she did. Upon having her first big break as a child, playing a snowflake for a local grade school recital, she became hooked on live theatre. Over the next several years, while her family moved often (again due to Dad’s work) the passion for theatre never dimmed in Harper’s soul. Travel allowed her to attend schools from South Orange, New Jersey to Pasadena, California and, ultimately, back to the east coast in Jersey City, New Jersey. Finally, in junior high she was allowed to remain in the New York City area while the rest of the family returned to Ashland, Oregon. Harper studied ballet at Lincoln High School in Jersey City and graduated from the prestigious Quintano’s Young Professionals School on West 56th Street in New York City. Sal Mineo, Tuesday Weld and Carol Lynley were amongst the notable names who attended the school over the years. It was closed right around 1990 after the death of Dr. Quintano, who ran it.
Surprisingly, Valerie’s first film appearance was while she was still training in New York and looking for her first big Broadway break. She learned of a call for dancers for one of those Fifties spot the rock group or singer pics called Rock, Rock, Rock. It starred Tuesday Weld but mostly was a showcase for Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and LaVern Baker. Music companies thrived on these as ways to promote their talent to drive-in teens. Movie studios just loved that these filled double-bills and turned them a profit during the car theater craze. Valerie and a fellow classmate, Barbara, played teens in a prom scene, dancing the Lindy Hop. As Valerie noted: “The job lasted three days, we made money (albeit very little) and we got to be rock and rollers in a movie. Best of all, I now had a film credit on my resume.”
Her first work on the Great White Way was in the musical version of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness called Take Me Along at the Shubert Theatre in 1959. It was in this show that she met her long-time friend (and tremendous classical tenor) Gene Varrone. Gene was also an accomplished interior designer and decorated every home Harper owned until his death in 1997. Harper would establish an early phase on Broadway mainly as dancer or member of the ensemble. Notable works included the Michael Kidd-choreographed Wildcat! In 1960 (starring the legendary Lucille Ball), and one of my favorite farces, written and directed by Carl Reiner, called Something Different, which opened at the Cort Theatre on November 28th, 1967. Of note on the latter is that Harper served as the understudy for the female lead Beth Nemerov. The star she stood behind? A young lady who would similarly go on to iconic status in television with the series Alice, Linda Lavin. Lavin would also gain notoriety as a skilled singer on both Broadway and in concert tours. Equally intriguing is a little tidbit regarding another of her early background dancer roles on screen, that of the 1959 L’il Abner. One of the other dancers in the picture, and Harper’s roommate at the time, was Beth Howland. Howland would also go on to fame in the series Alice, alongside star Linda Lavin as her klutzy fellow waitress Vera. Certainly proving that the world of show business, as global as it was even then, can still seem quite small.
It was while doing An American Nightmare, a new play by C. Robert Holloway and Richard Levine at what Harper referred to as “a tiny, black-box theatre on Vermont Avenue” in Los Angeles (just before heading back to New York for Paul Sills’ Story Theatre run on Broadway in October 1970) that Harper was spotted by casting agent Ethel Winant, who encouraged the actress to audition for the part of Rhoda Morgenstern, a friend to star Mary Tyler Moore’s character Mary Richards on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Harper’s reaction was just a bit excited, leaning to manic. “At first I thought C. Robert was joking. I couldn’t believe I was being asked to audition with a star like Mary Tyler Moore. When he assured me that he wasn’t joking, I asked if he would act as my agent. C. Robert agreed but warned me he was leaving town and might not be available down the road. I told him that was fine because I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting the part.” As the proverbial old saying goes, the rest is history.
Harper would go on to be nominated for the Emmy award five times for her work on the MTM Show and Rhoda, winning four. She would also be nominated for the Golden Globes three times, taking the trophy once. As successful as she had become at that point in the 70s, it was a bit odd that her career in feature films, while in no way minute, did not really take off. Were fans more comfortable with her on television as opposed to the big screen? Or did she feel more at home on stage and television? Certainly she held her own in cinema, with gem appearances such as in Freebie and the Bean (1974), playing Alan Arkin’s wife Consuelo. Golden Globes came calling again, this time a nomination for New Female Star of the Year, in conjunction with this picture. Next up was the charming and witty 1979 Neil Simon project Chapter Two, opposite James Caan and Marsha Mason. Along with it came a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Yet, as the 70s ended, Harper would amass only three more feature credits (The Last Married Couple in America (1980), the amusing Blame it on Rio (1984), and a support role in the low budget horror chiller in Shiver in 2012). It was clear that tv and treading the boards were where she felt most comfortable and is best remembered.
There is the ferocity of spirit and strength of will side to Harper that came to the fore when she returned to television situation comedy in 1986 with the NBC series Valerie. A successful first season did not result in harmony between Harper, the network and Lorimar Productions the producer of the series. Valerie was fired during a contract dispute, while ultimately winning $1.4 million in a civil suit she filed against NBC and Lorimar for Breach of Contract. The claims against NBC were dismissed but the jury found that she was wrongfully terminated. This independent courage the star exhibited was emblematic of the type of champion that she was in other areas of life outside her vocation. A politically active person, Harper ran for President of the Screen Actor’s Guild in 2001, losing out to another longtime TV vet Melissa Gilbert.
One of the many aspects of Harper’s career outside of stage and television that she was most proud of was her tireless work as an activist. She was heavily involved in the second phase of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 70s and 80s. While the first phase of the movement decades earlier dealt more with Suffrage and Gender Equality (voting and property rights), the second went into a range of issues from sexuality to the workplace to reproductive rights. Harper famously appeared with her sister, Leah Winward, at a rally in Seattle for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978.
Serving as co-chair (with Polly Bergen) of the California-based group The Committee to Ratify the ERA, Harper appeared at a rally in Florida in September of 1980 to campaign for the re-election of then-State Senator Don Chamberlin, also a huge proponent of the ERA. The star’s words, relayed by Lynn Forbish of the St. Petersburg Evening Independent on September 20, 1980, were fiery and to the point. “To survive, it can’t be you or me, black or white, man or woman. It must be you and me, live and let live. The context must shift to a you-and-me world-an equality of the quality of being human.”
In 1983 Harper joined with fellow actor Dennis Weaver and other stars to form the non-profit LIFE (Love is Feeding Everyone) to help feed the hungry of Los Angeles. At its apex the group had supported 200 agencies who were feeding more than 150,000 people. Though it disbanded in 1999, the aid that it provided was beyond measure. Here was Valerie again, stepping in to lend her particular brand of energy and will to a cause. She was distinctly more than just the pretty face and the comic talent. Add to it a warrior for humanity and you’ve got the summation of who she was as a human.
In 2009, Harper was diagnosed with Lung Cancer and battled it for several years. She appeared to be winning the battle (or, at least, giving it the good fight) when, in 2013, she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. It’s name was leptomeningeal carcinomatosis. A rare condition that occurs when cancer cells spread into the fluid-filled membrane – known as the meninges – surrounding the brain. The prognosis is generally three months. Yet, Harper vowed to fight, as it was just in her DNA never to give up. She went through various treatments, from extensive Chemotherapy on down, in her efforts to demolish the disease. Through it all, she maintained a work regimen, appearing in guest turns on such shows as Two Broke Girls and Liza on Demand (later in 2018), and even taking a spin as a dance contestant for the 17th season of ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. Not bad for someone fighting the ravages of an ultimate killer. But Harper was the ultimate in driven personality so it was a match for a seriously long time.
One of the most compelling quotes I’d read from Harper since her 2013 diagnosis, came in 2015. And it, quite possibly, gives a big indication of the weapon she used to suppress defeat at the hands of this monster that is cancer: humor. “I talk to the cells all the time. I say, “What the hell are you doing? Not only are you destructive, coming in and ruining all my plans, but you are dumb! You are killing the host. If you take a low profile I can live with you, here on the edge of the sword. You can fall one way or the other.” Right now, things are working fantastically. Tomorrow, I don’t know.”
On the morning of August 30th, 2019 Valerie Kathryn Harper died in Los Angeles. A mere 8 days after her 80th birthday. The indefatigable fighter that she was had turned a 3 month death sentence into nearly six more years of loving life. Fans will remember her for her amazing grace as a dancer, impeccable timing and wit as an actress, even as an amazingly strong activist. I’ll remember her for that, and much more. To me, in short, she was the best example for me to look to, as I guide myself through my life, of all that encompasses the totality that is the human spirit. Thank you, Valerie. Thank you, Rhoda. Now tell a few jokes to God and give him or her a big belly laugh for all of us on Earth.