Valerie Harper, star of “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” dies at 80
Valerie Harper, who thought she would die from cancer years ago but survived to ply her madcap comic style for a new generation of audiences, has died. She was 80.
Her husband, producer/actor Tony Cacciotti, confirmed her death Friday to ABC and The New York Times. Longtime family friend Dan Watt confirmed her death to the Associated Press but said the family would not immediately release further details.
She died just eight days after her birthday. She had been battling cancer for years, and her husband said recently he had been advised to put her in hospice care.
Harper, best known for roles on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Rhoda,” had overcome multiple medical crises over the years, including surviving after being told she was terminal, but the bills were mounting.
In July, a family friend created a GoFundMe campaign, shared to Harper’s official Facebook page, for Cacciotti.
The last 10 years have been up and down health-wise for Harper. In 2009, she survived lung cancer. Four years later, in 2013, she announced she had been diagnosed with a rare – and terminal – kind of brain cancer, with only months to live.
In multiple media interviews, she explained she had leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare condition that occurs when cancer cells spread into the fluid-filled membrane surrounding the brain.
But Harper survived. In 2014, she told the media that her cancer was in a kind of remission.
In 2015, she was rushed to a hospital after feeling unwell before an evening performance of “Nice Work If You Can Get It” at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Ogunquit, Maine, and was reported to be in a coma and failing.
She wrote on Facebook that she is “happy to report I am not, nor have I been, in a coma.”
In September 2016, People magazine interviewed her, reporting that the cancer of the brain membrane was back and her condition was terminal.
As of Jan. 24, 2017, Harper was tweeting again, promoting her latest role in an indie film, “My Mom and The Girl.”
Harper trod Broadway stages and sparkled on the big screen, but it was on sitcom TV where she made her memorable mark, as zany/spunky, man-crazy, independent/single girl and upstairs neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
As much as the show’s eponymous star, Harper entertained millions and “turned the world on with her smile,” as the theme song went. “We all looked up to Mary but we identified with Rhoda,” Harper used to say.
But Harper also made a memorable mark at the end of her life, because hers was a death delayed: In 2013, she told People magazine, and soon everybody else in an emotional round of print and talk-show interviews, that she was dying. And this after she had already beaten lung cancer.
Harper said her doctors suggested she may have only have three months left to live. “I don’t think of dying. I think of being here now,” she said at the time, openly talking, crying and joking about what she was facing.
“Being here” turned out to last two years. “I’m the poster child for not believing everything I’m told,” Harper joked a year after her diagnosis.
She was not “cancer-free,” but she was in a kind of remission, responding well to treatment, taking loads of pills and acing her scans.
“I want to live,” she told everyone, “and as long as I’m here, every single moment is going to be as good as I can have it be.”
And she was working. A year after the months-to-live prediction, she appeared in a Hallmark Channel series, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” In fact, her IMDb profile lists a total of six roles in 2014 and 2015, including an appearance on a contemporary sit-com, “2 Broke Girls.” She even appeared on “Dancing With the Stars” in September 2013.
In a 2006 interview with The Advocate, she talked about how Rhoda became a gay icon, after she goes on a date with the brother of her nosy landlady, Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman). Phyllis is horrified her brother might fall for Rhoda, until Rhoda ends up breaking the news to her that he’s gay.
“When I tell Phyllis, she says, ‘Oh, what a relief!’ ” she recalled, which got a laugh. But that wasn’t all.
“Do you know, when I said that line ‘He’s gay,’ we got the biggest laugh ever on the show? I mean, this was the ’70s, long before “Will & Grace” or “Ellen;” there really weren’t gay characters on television back then. The audience laughed and cheered for over a minute. They had to take most of the audience response out for the broadcast cut. It was amazing.”
Harper’s resume of roles dates back to the 1960s but her long run as Rhoda began in 1970 with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and later with her own show, “Rhoda,” which was on until 1978. (Later, in 1986-87, she had another series, “Valerie.”)
She collected four Emmys and a Golden Globe for her work as Rhoda. She also won Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Woman of the Year, and her “Rhoda’s Wedding” episode in 1974 set that year’s ratings record.
In the 21st century, she was still making TV appearances, on series such as “Desperate Housewives,” “The Office” and “Drop Dead Diva.”
Harper was known as a passionate advocate for women’s rights and the unsuccessful Equal Rights Amendment. Since the 1980s she had been making a film with second husband, Cacciotti, on the subject of domestic violence, based on a true story.
Harper was born in Suffern, N.Y. — “I was born to suffer” — and began as a dancer at Radio City Hall during its heyday. She moved into acting, working in industrial shows, regional theater and the Second City comedy troupe of Chicago. Eventually, she made it to Broadway and feature films, until landing the part of Rhoda.
Her first marriage, to Richard Schaal, lasted from 1964 to 1978. She and her second husband married in 1987.
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