Tribute today to the late Valerie Harper, 1939-2019.
The most surprising thing one learns about Harper, given her long association with Jewish characters, is that she is not Jewish. She was raised Catholic and is a totally white bread ethnic mix of English/Scottish/Irish/Welsh and French. Rather, Harper is a mistress of comedy accents. In addition to Jews, she has played Latinas, Italians, midwesterners, Southern belles, whatever a script calls for. Her father was a salesman; the family moved all over the country, although the majority of her youth was spent in the greater New York City area. She undoubtedly spent a lot of time hearing many different regional dialects.
As a young person she studied dance and her early stage and screen credits are as a dancer. She dances in the 1956 movie Rock Rock Rock! starring Tuesday Weld, with whom she went to high school in New York. She also has a bit part in the film Li’l Abner (1959) and danced in the Broadway musicals Take Me Along (1959-1960), Wildcat (1960-61), and Subways Are for Sleeping (1961-62).
During these years her room-mate was Arlene Golonka (also a familiar character actress), who initiated her into Second City, which became her springboard to success. Trained in improv in the Second City house style, she also met her first husband and frequent creative partner Dick Schaal while working with the company. She and Schaal married in 1964. Schaal’s career took off first, he began appearing regularly on television as early as 1964. (Later, after Harper broke through, he was to be seen frequently on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and Phyllis.)
In the late sixties, Harper worked constantly as a sketch comedian, appearing on the comedy album When You’re in Love, the Whole World is Jewish (1966), touring with Paul Sills’ Story Theatre, which made it to Broadway (1970-1971), and appearing on the television shows Playboy After Dark (1969) and Love American Style (1970-1971 — she cowrote one episode with Schaal, then appeared in another episode the following year).
Through all her sketch comedy experience, she had already mastered her “New York type” character by the time she was cast as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970. Her role as the wisecracking neighbor brought color and flair to the show’s somewhat bleak Midwestern setting and became one of the show’s most popular features. It was not the hugest shock when she was given her own spinoff series Rhoda in 1974.
I was a huge fan of the show; I have to add it to that long list of 70s tv sitcoms that made me want to move to New York. I went and re-watched some episodes recently and it all came flooding back. The premise is that Rhoda comes back to New York on a visit and falls in love with a guy whose son her sister is babysitting, so she just moves back.
Rhoda’s boyfriend Joe, whom she married in a record-setting episode a few weeks into the first season, was played by David Groh, a rugged James Caan type, which was very popular in that era. Among the joys of the series were her stereotypical Jewish mother, played by the 4′ 11″ Nancy Walker, who’d been a familiar character actress of stage, film, tv, and commercials for over a quarter century by that point. For me, as a kid, Walker was the star of the show. Equally welcome was Harold Gould, another familiar character actor, as her dashing, much milder father. Lorenzo Music, who also wrote for the show, was the voice of Carlton the Doorman (Music would later voice Garfield the cat in the animated series, and a crash test dummy in a popular highway safety PSA).
My wife has expressed her consternation about Rhoda’s body issues. Rhoda’s constantly fretting about her weight and claiming that she’s ugly, whereas she is so clearly thin and beautiful (the bone structure of her face, and her deep-set pale blue eyes remind me a bit of Marlene Dietrich). When I was a kid I noticed none of this. I didn’t notice either that she was beautiful or that she thought she was ugly, only that she was extremely funny. She has amazing theatrical presence and timing. Study her. Study Valerie Harper for how to deliver a one liner. She’s great at acting dramatic moments too, but when she’s joking she has this amazing way of talking to her scene partner but including the audience as well that’s kind of what theatre is all about (for me). She’s simply masterful.
Returning to the subject of beauty, though, one has to mention the show’s unique aesthetics. There is the distinctive Rhoda “look”, characterized by gypsy-like head scarves, peasant skirts, and other eye-catching, colorful and flowing hippie accoutrement. She tends to look fabulous in every scene.
Similarly the sets brought the era back to me. Her sister Brenda’s apartment has that neo-Victorian-fin de siecle kitsch style that was so popular at the time, and influenced me immensely as a kid. And there is the bizarre credit sequence, with her voice over narration setting up the show’s premise, over wah-wah guitar music, and psychedelic neon collages depicting her life and relationship with New York City. It is definitely of its time.
Rhoda ran until 1978; there was a Mary and Rhoda reunion tv movie in 2000. But she did a lot else. Originally this was to strictly be a piece about Rhoda, but then I was reminded of her extensive credits before and after the series. She’s in the movies Freebie and the Bean (1974), Chapter Two (1979), The Last Married Couple in America (1980), and Blame it on Rio (1984). And THEN she had ANOTHER hit sit-com, and this show became a show biz legend of a different kind.
Debuting in 1986, the show was called Valerie. Harper played a mom struggling to raise three sons while her airplane pilot husband was away from home most of the time. One of the sons was played by the popular Jason Bateman. By the end of the second season, the show was so popular that Harper demanded a large raise. The producers of the show balked, but Harper stood firm…and lost the showdown. This event is huge in show biz annals because something unprecedented followed. Rather than cancel the series, they fired the star (Harper), killed off the character, and changed the name of the show. For one season it was Valerie’s Family (without Valerie) and for the remaining seasons it was The Hogan Family. Sandy Duncan was hired to play the deceased Valerie’s sister-in-law who moves in to help with the kids. This whole development outraged me at the time. To me Valerie Harper was a star, to be respected. There was something kind of cold-blooded about the whole chain of events.
Harper never lacked for work thereafter, despite all. Most of it has been on television, in tv movies and guest shots on various series. She replaced her old Second City pal Linda Lavin in the original Broadway production of Charles Busch’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife (2000-2002). She played Golda Meier in a one woman show (2005-2006) which was made into a 2007 film. From 2008 through 2010 she played Tallulah Bankhead in the play Looped, which premiered at the Pasadena Playhouse and moved to Broadway.
In 2009 Harper was diagnosed with incurable cancer which she fought valiantly for a decade (even appearing on Dancing with the Stars) until finally succumbing in 2019. Today we salute her for being the very definition of a trouper.