Valerie Harper, the stage and screen star who became a television icon and shorthand for best friend as Rhoda Morgenstern, has died at 80 from leptomeningeal carcinomatosis.
Harper first achieved success as a dancer on the stage before TV beckoned, appearing in the Broadway productions of Take Me Along, Wildcat (with Lucille Ball), Subways Are for Sleeping, Something Different, and Paul Sills' Story Theatre.
But it was her casting as Mary Richards' best friend Rhoda, the single, Jewish, wisecracking window dresser, that secured Harper's place in television history, first on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then her own spinoff, Rhoda. She won four Emmy Awards as Rhoda, three while appearing on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and one on her spinoff.
Harper returned to Broadway twice in more recent years, succeeding Linda Lavin in Charles Busch's Tony-nominated The Tale of the Allergist's Wife in 2001 and in 2010 as Tallulah Bankhead in Matthew Lombardo's Looped, a performance that earned the actor a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Play.
Playbill spoke with Harper following her 2010 Tony nomination, and the actor reflected on receiving her first nomination after so many years in the business. "This is fantastic!," Harper said. "I've been on Broadway several times before, and it's always thrilling, but to have created this role and have my husband as the lead producer from the get-go [is so meaningful]. We've been on [this project] for two years. It's an unbelievable acknowledgment, and I am a Broadway baby, really! Back in the old days, going to the auditions, standing in line, hoping to get a [job]. And I did. I danced in five choruses of Broadway shows, dancing and singing before I started acting. So it's a real, thrilling, deep joy, and I couldn't be happier."
In 2013 Gallery Books released Harper's memoir I, Rhoda. About The Mary Tyler Moore Show Harper wrote that the situation comedy "reflected the way more and more real women were living in the 1970s. It was refreshing and invigorating and addressed the changing attitude towards women in the workplace that had been rippling across the country."
About the character of Rhoda, Harper said, "Mary is who you wish you were. Rhoda is who you probably are. And Phyllis is who’ll you’re afraid you’ll become."
Valerie Harper was born August 22, 1939. She is survived by her husband, Tony Cacciotti, and daughter Cristina.