While Valerie Harper’s lengthy career touched seven different decades, it’s fair to say she was best known for one particular role – Rhoda. First as the liberated, and rather liberal, neighbor of Mary Tyler Moore on the classic 70’s sitcom named after its star.
Harper played Rhoda for 92 episodes before the character became too big for a supporting role. CBS then gave Harper the spin-off, Rhoda, which ran for 110 episodes from 1974-1978. Harper was nominated for four Emmys in the supporting category while on Mary Tyler Moore – winning three. She was nominated four more times as a lead on Rhoda, winning once.
It would be another eight years before Harper would return to TV in a situational comedy in 1986, with Valerie. The show received strong ratings out of the gate – if not the critically acclaimed touchstone her previous two shows were. Despite the show’s initial success, Harper only lasted 32 episodes before being fired by NBC in a Bitter contract dispute with the network.
Harper sued NBC for wrongful termination and was awarded $1.4 million-plus 12.5% of the show’s future profits in 1987. The show continued as Valerie’s Family and then The Hogan Family before being canceled in 1990. Harper’s character was written off the show by offscreen death.
Harper never returned to series television except for the occasional guest spot. In her later years, she did a great deal of voice work. Most notably for The Simpsons.
In 2013, Harper revealed that she had a rare form of brain cancer, but that she was responding well to treatment. Her last credit was for more voice work. This time for American Dad in 2018.
But again, it will always be the name Rhoda that Harper will be tied to. And for great reason. Rhoda Morgenstern was the second groundbreaking character from what was probably the greatest televised comedy of the 70’s. While it was Mary’s show, it was Rhoda who supplied not only the spice but quite often the break in the ground below television’s feet.
Rhoda may have been neurotic, but she was also unapologetically independent, and by the standards of the time, quite forward-thinking on the subject of dating and sex. For the spin-off, Rhoda falls in love, marries, and moves to New York City from Minneapolis where The Mary Tyler Moore Show took place. “Rhoda” was a massive hit in its first two years. The pilot episode was CBS’s first to debut at number one.
The show took a turn in the third season. One that would devastate its ratings to a degree that it never recovered from. Rhoda and her husband, Joe, separated. And after attending counseling, Joe divulged that he never wanted to get married and that he only did under pressure from Rhoda. The move was brave and risky, but fans of the show responded with revulsion. The network and the show’s actors received death threats and by the time the show was canceled just two years later, it had sunk from number one in the Nielsen Ratings to 95.
Still, it’s hard to imagine what television would have been like without Valerie Harper’s Rhoda. She bridged the gap from adult characters who slept in separate beds to true grownups with grown-up problems. Pick any modern show with a strong female protagonists who are not defined only by the men in their lives (Grey’s Anatomy and Two Broke Girls – which Harper guested on come immediately to mind) and you will find they all owe a debt to Rhoda, and the actor who brought her to life.
Valerie Harper died today. She was 80 years old.