R.I.P., Valerie Harper

So sorry to hear about Valerie Harper, who finally succumbed after years of fighting brain cancer. She had just turned 80 the week before her death.

I was only nine years old when “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” debuted on CBS, but even then I could see the difference between that show and more standard sitcoms. The characters were unique and fascinating and spoke like real adults. One of those adults was a self-deprecating Bronx-to-Minneapolis transplant named Rhoda Morgenstern — Harper, of course — who spent most of that debut episode haggling with sweet Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) over a vacant apartment that both of them wanted to rent from landlady Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman).

The brusqueness that solidified Rhoda’s character almost did that character in. Legend has it that the filming of that show seemed a disaster. At the show’s post-mortem meeting, the creators decided that the problem was Rhoda came across as too unlikable.

That could have spelled doom for Rhoda, except that there was another, more unsung character in that episode — Phyllis’ young daughter Bess (Lisa Gerritsen). The writers decided to add a couple of lines of dialogue wherein Bess declares how much she likes “Aunt Rhoda.” It made the audience realize that if a nice, bright girl could find some good in wisecracking Rhoda, so could we.

And we did, for nine years. Harper won three Emmys and countless raves in her four years on Mary’s show. Then CBS programming exec Fred Silverman, who never met a show he couldn’t spin off, gave Harper a starring showcase (and another Emmy) in “Rhoda.” The show is best remembered for its first-season marriage of Rhoda to Joe (David Groh), after which the show began floundering because Rhoda was no longer a lovable loser (just lovable) and because the writers quickly ran out of plausible marriage plots. But the show was popular enough to last for five years.

Harper’s life post-“Rhoda” wasn’t all chocolates and hearts. One item that Harper’s obit writers are scrupulously avoiding is “Valerie,” an initially successful sitcom on NBC starring Harper as basically a single mother trying to raise her kids without her husband, a mostly errant airline pilot.

After two years of behind-the-scenes drama, Harper demanded a pay raise, which she was refused. She had tried this in 1975 and won with “Rhoda,” but NBC and the show’s producers had other ideas. They cast Sandy Duncan as Valerie’s sister, killed off Valerie’s character, and renamed the show “The Hogan Family.”

Happily, Harper’s career continued to flourish, even after she was diagnosed with cancer. Her own diagnosis summed it all up: “Don’t go to your funeral before the day of the funeral.”

I can think of no better tribute to provide Harper than to post her finest hour on “MTM,” “Rhoda the Beautiful.” Enjoy it, and keep a hanky handy.


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