Valerie Harper, the multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom star whose role as the somewhat neurotic Rhoda Morgenstern made her one of television’s biggest and most beloved actors in the 1970s, died today. She was 80 and had been suffering from various cancers for a number of years.
Her family told KABC-TV entertainment reporter George Pennacchio that Harper had been in a coma for a while before succumbing,
The veteran TV and stage actress was best known for playing sidekick Rhoda Morgenstern on CBS The Mary Tyler Moore Show, then taking the character into her own popular spinoff, Rhoda.
She also starred in the 1980s sitcom, Valerie, which — thanks to some head-butting over creative control with the show producers – saw Harper’s character killed off as an explanation for her exiting the show. It then morphed into Valerie’s Family and later was retitled The Hogan Family.
Harper also had recurring roles on The Office and The Simpsons. Her film credits include Freebie and the Bean (1974) and Chapter Two (1979).
Over the years, she won four Emmy Awards as Rhoda — three for the supporting role on Mary Tyler Moore and one as lead actress for Rhoda — and was nominated in eight consecutive years from 1971-78, She also was nominated for a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year for her role in the 1974 film Freebie and The Bean and earned a Tony nom in 2010 for her role as Tallulah Bankhead in the play Looped.
Harper was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009. Then, in 2013, doctors discovered she’d developed a rare brain cancer. But she defied the odds on both dread diseases and even participated on Dancing with the Stars in 2014.
More recently, she took a turn for the worse, and Harper’s husband, Tony Cacciotti, started a GoFundMe campaign titled The Valerie Harper Cancer Support Fund on July 8 to help with the mounting medical bills. He said in the request that she required 24/7 care, but that he did not want to put her into hospice care.
Harper was born on Aug. 22, 1939, in Suffern, NY, the middle child of three. The family moved frequently, owing to her father’s work as a lighting salesman, and Harper lived in New Jersey, California, Michigan, Oregon and then New Jersey again. She briefly attended a Jersey City high school, then traveled across the river and graduated from the Young Professionals School on West 56th Street in Manhattan, where her classmates included future stars Sal Mineo, Tuesday Weld and Carol Lynley.
The young Harper studied ballet and began her show business career as a Broadway dancer in the 1959 musical Take Me Along. She appeared in several other plays, then scored a bit part in the 1959 film Li’l Abner. From there, she segued into a mixed bag of an entertainment career — television episodes, small theater work, touring with the Second City comedy troupe, recording comedy records and even dabbling in some television writing.
Her big break came in 1970, when a casting agent spied her and asked her to audition for the role of Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Harper, who was raised in the Catholic faith, instantly transformed into Mary’s slightly neurotic, quintessentially Jewish sidekick. She played the role on Mary Tyler Moore from 1970-74, until her character moved to New York for her own spinoff, Rhoda, which ran from 1974-78.
The spinoff was an instant hit, finishing tied for No. 7 among primetime programs for the 1974-75 season. That was its only time making the seasonal top 25, however.
Harper ran for SAG president in 2001 but lost to Melissa Gilbert before the union merged with AFTRA.
Survivors include her husband, Tony Cacciotti, and daughter Cristina Harper. No memorial plans have been announced.
Here is a portion of her sit-down for The Interviews from the TV Academy Foundation: