BELOVED ACTRESS–In this June 13, 2010 photo, Valerie Harper arrives at the 61st Annual Tony Awards in New York. (AP Photo/Peter Kramer)
by Frazier Moore
NEW YORK (AP) — Valerie Harper, who played Rhoda Morgenstern on television’s “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spinoff, “Rhoda,” has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
People magazine reported on its website Wednesday that the 73-year-old actress received the news on Jan. 15. Tests revealed she has leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare condition that occurs when cancer cells spread into the fluid-filled membrane surrounding the brain. The report says Harper’s doctors have said she has as little as three months to live.
“I don’t think of dying,” Harper told the magazine in a cover interview. “I think of being here now.”
Harper’s character, Rhoda, was one of television’s most beloved characters during the 1970s, and the tart-tongued, self-deprecating Rhoda made Harper a star. She won three consecutive Emmys (1971-73) as supporting actress on “Mary” plus another for outstanding lead actress for “Rhoda,” which ran from 1974-78.
Harper began show business as a dancer in several Broadway musicals, and worked in summer stock and with the Second City improv group.
“I was a dancer but I was always a little overweight,” she once told The Associated Press. “I’d say, ‘Hello, I’m Valerie Harper and I’m overweight.’ I’d say it quickly before they could. … I always got called chubby, my nose was too wide, my hair was too kinky.”
Accordingly, she played Rhoda at first as a plump, wisecracking contrast to slender, winsome Mary Richards. But as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” evolved, Rhoda trimmed down and her own brand of beauty was acknowledged.
The character was wildly popular and soon inspired her own CBS sitcom, which saw Rhoda moving back home to New York City and even getting married.
After her success on TV, she returned to theater. Several TV movie and feature films followed, including “Chapter Two” and “Blame It on Rio.”
In 2000, she reunited with Moore in a TV film, “Mary and Rhoda.”
“Rhoda Morgenstern gave a wonderful impetus and propulsion to my career,” she told the AP in 2001.
At the time, she had stepped into the role originated by former “Alice” star Linda Lavin in the Broadway comedy “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.”
Harper played what she described as “an angst-ridden Woman of a Certain Age,” and she likened that character to Rhoda, whose shared creed, she said, is “Get into life, and enjoy it. Just stop with the white knuckles and relax. Be OK with yourself.”
In recent years, Harper had guest roles on several TV series, and in 2010 was back on Broadway playing Tallulah Bankhead, a flamboyant star from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
AP Drama Critic Michael Kuchwara wrote that “Harper submerges the iconic Rhoda Morgenstern” and “has a ferocious sense of comic timing.”
In January, Harper published a new memoir, “I, Rhoda.”