Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Valerie Harper

Unfortunately, I never met Valerie Harper. I saw her once on stage and went to numerous RHODA filmings but never actually met her. Judging by the photos on Facebook I think I’m the only one in show business who didn’t. But I know all those other people who did and they all, to a person, loved her. And she made a huge impact on popular culture. Rhoda Morgenstern was a clearly Jewish character who was embraced by America.

Trust me when I say you would create a Jewish character for a sitcom pilot and the network would say, “Uh, she’s too urban” or my favorite: “She’s too… New York.” We knew what that was code for.

But Valerie broke through all of that. Her “Rhoda” was unapologeticaly Jewish and as such, unapologeticaly FUNNY. She brought a warmth and likability to that character that not only made her accepted, but beloved by the public. When they spun her off into her own series her wedding was seen by 53 million people. THE BIG BANG THEORY grand series finale drew 18 million.

In fairness, a tremendous amount of credit for Rhoda’s success was also the “voice” of that character, MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW writer Treva Silverman. Treva knew just how to write her. It’s quite a trick to make an ethnic character authentic, universal, sympathetic, and hilariously funny. But Treva’s words and Valerie’s performance elevated Rhoda to a television icon.

I invite you to watch the first few seasons of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW when she and Treva were really hitting their stride. I’ll be honest, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was never as good after both she and Treva left.

But that was a long time ago. Valerie played many great parts, touched many lives, and took many photos in the subsequent 40 years. I’m sorry I never did get the chance to meet her. And thank her. I did get to write for her. Okay, it was a RHODA spec that was rejected all over town but STILL.

The thing is, you didn’t need to meet Valerie Harper to love her. And 53 million people did. To me that’s an even greater legacy.


Michael said...

It's funny that you say that about the MTM show, because, like MASH, it changed. They also spun off Cloris Leachman, so it made sense for Mary to move. They gave her a boyfriend, which led to what I still consider one of the funniest moments they ever had on that show, when the boys got drunk together and when Ted said it was his first time, Lou said, "In drinker's terms, tonight Ted lost his olive."

And lest we forget, what many consider the single funniest TV show ever came along after Rhoda and Phyllis moved on: when Chuckles moved on, too. By the way, Ken, David Lloyd also wrote one of the greatest Frasier episodes, with the funeral of the aunt nobody liked and Martin's Sinatra song.

thirteen said...

They spun MARY TYLER MOORE to death. It was as if it had fallen into a black hole.

It struck me a day or so ago that the two most famous Jewish characters on CBS in 1972 were played by non-Jewish actors: Valerie Harper (Italian Catholic) and David Birney (Protestant).

Tom Quigley said...

The very first line that Rhoda spoke to Mary in the pilot established who the character was, as she came through the balcony door, saw Mary looking her new digs over and said "Hello. Get out of my apartment." You knew right away that the relationship between the two was going to be one that had its rough patches, but would ultimately be based on trust and love. -- A side note: when Mary Tyler Moore received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (I was there to see it), Valerie Harper was the only cast member to attend, with Morey Amsterdam being the only one from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. Knowing that actors often have busy and conflicting schedules, I still felt bad for Mary that more cast members didn't show up to celebrate the honor; but Valerie was there, a true close friend throughout the years.

Arlen Peters said...

Ken, I did get the chance to spend time with Valerie at her home, doing an interview with her for CBS Radio. She was married to first husband Richard Schaal at the time. Truly one of the loveliest people I ever had the joy of talking with. As if we had known each other for years. Very warm, very funny, very bright. A smile that lit up the room.
Over the years, I always found the bigger the talent, the lovelier the person. She fit that bill. And since I did a lot of the interviews at people's houses (with my trusty Sony cassette recorder--no camera or lights or crew), I also saw the way they lived. In her case, a very warm "embracing" home, which mirrored her.
Needless to say, "Rhoda" is one of the indelible comedy characters ever created. Treva wrote the words but Valerie gave them "life."
Sadly, Valerie is not with with us ... but "Rhoda" lives on in the pantheon of comedy!

Rashad Khan said...

Rhoda (and Valerie) meant a lot to me as a teenager, when I was having the hardest time surviving junior high and high school. Not a day went by when I wasn't bullied for being overweight and effeminate (among other things) or nagged by my mother (also for being overweight and effeminate, as well as extremely lazy). Knowing that I had reruns of MTM and "Rhoda" to look forward to every night, however, helped me to cope and to make it to the next, miserable day. Honestly, Ken (and everyone else), I don't know whether I'd be alive today w/out Rhoda, and Mary, and the rest of the MTM/"Rhoda" gang.

God bless everyone involved in the creation of that wonderful character. And God bless you, Mr. Levine, for that fabulous tribute.

Neil D said...

Damn. Between the coverage of the hurricane, boat fire, shooting and the ongoing tragedy that is the President of the United States, I didn't even see that she had passed. What a thing when you can't even find the sad news you want to know about for all of the other sad news going on.

Rest in peace, funny lady.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

What bothered me was years ago when she made her cancer diagnosis public, there were some cable networks that were already running tribute marathons of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and RHODA . . . as if she had already died. The tributes felt quite premature.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

I was REALLY young when the Mary Tyler Moore show was on.
But even as a young boy, I had a deep crush on "Rhoda"...on Valerie.

She was pretty (though "not as pretty as "Mare" " as Rhoda used to remind us).
But she was approachable beautiful.

And damn was she freaking funny. She was never in the background of any scene, unless she wanted to be.

And she wasn't Jewish either. A nice Catholic girl.
But much like a great Jewish comedian of the 70's, Gilda Radner, Valerie could deliver a line.
Her playoff with "Phyllis" were usually the best part of each MTM show. 2 women who could hold their own.

There was a show in the early 1990s called "CITY" that she starred in. Only went 13 episodes. But that show was very well written and performed.

RIP Valerie.

VincentS said...

Fine tribute, Ken. It's a tribute to Valerie Harper as an actress that most people who watched her didn't realize she was actually an Irish girl from upstate New York! Certainly I didn't. It's one thing to be cast as Jewish, New York, it's another thing to be able to pull it off in front of tens of millions of people. She and Terva deserve all the kudos.

Anonymous said...

Of course, there had been https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Goldbergs_(broadcast_series)
on radio and TV, but, tellingly, the radio and TV versions made their debuts before either medium
became a big business. Not unlike how racial segregation was enforced in sports leagues
once they became established, or how the power of women in film was reduced as silents gave way
to talkies.

Roseann said...

I worked a few days on a TV move Valerie was starring in. Quiet, unassuming and lovely. I remember most riding in the teamster driven vehicle to the location.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

What sets MTM apart from every other TV show, is how much American loved the individual cast members.

Every cast member had their own successful starring TV show afterwards...

Obviously, Mary had another show (assisted by Ken and David)
and there were the spinoffs:
Valerie had "Rhoda"
Cloris had "Phyllis"
Ed had "Lou Grant"

Gavin helmed "the Love Boat"
Ted starred in "Too Close for Comfort" and the "Ted Knight Show"
Betty had the "Betty White Show" and "the Golden Girls"
John Amos had "Good Times"

Georgia Engel didn't star in any show but certainly added to memorable recurring roles in "Coach" and "Everybody Loves Raymond"

John Hammes said...

There is a video clip, easily found online, of Ed Asner and Valerie Harper winning Emmys for the 1970 television season. Interesting to see Lucille Ball and Jack Benny as presenters - a sort of passing the baton between generations, so to speak. Both Asner and Harper are outwardly focused, thanking cast and crew, family and friends, instead of making it all about themselves. A timeless and welcome example.

There is a reference to Mother's Day - apparently the Emmy Awards used to be a Spring event? Actually, would kind of make more sense, have the ceremony occur during or near the end of a particular broadcast season. Everyone could then take part in a grand season finale, without really having to do anything other than show up.

Rest in peace, to all the good people in our lives, who have made us better people.

J Lee said...

The show was different after Valerie left, in that if you look at the early seasons, there's probably a slight tilt towards scenes in Mary's apartment. That started to shift more around Season 3 to episodes centered in the newsroom, but it really went that way after Harper and then Cloris Leachman, were given their own shows.

Betty White came on to take Valerie's place as the main female source of comedy (and her debut episode with Leachman was hysterical), but that solidified the show even more at WJM. Both versions of MTM were great, it was just that the focus was more towards work in the final few seasons (and the change made it tougher to do episode's at Mary's new high-rise apartment).

Dave Creek said...

I got to meet Valerie Harper briefly several years ago when I was covering a Kentucky Derby charity party for WDRB-TV. I told her I was a cancer survivor and that I was certain that her being so outspoken gave others hope. She thanked me and hugged me and I wished her all the best. At the time it seemed as if she might have only a few months to live, but fortunately she outlasted those estimates by several years.

Diane KH said...

I agree that the combination of Treva, Valerie, and Rhoda was formidable and funny. I also agree that the MTM show was weaker without the core friendship of Mary and Rhoda. At the time the loss wasn't as noticeable because with both shows on the air Rhoda and Mary didn't seem so far apart. Hindsight says Rhoda should have been spun off after MTM finished its run, but that's the beauty of hindsight.

Dave Creek said...

I got to meet Valerie Harper briefly several years ago when I was covering a Kentucky Derby charity party for WDRB-TV. I told her I was a cancer survivor and that I was certain that her being so outspoken gave others hope. She thanked me and hugged me and I wished her all the best. At the time it seemed as if she might have only a few months to live, but fortunately she outlasted those estimates by several years.

Barry Traylor said...

I also loved the character of Rhoda. A fine actress.

Kubelsky said...

I read that at the 31st Emmys (1979), the "ceremony [was] remembered for problems with the Pasadena Civic Auditorium's air-conditioning..."
Ken, you were nominated this year for "Point of View." Can you shed some light on this? Was it sweltering in there? Noisy? Too cold? Also, this seems to be the only year where sitcom and comedy/variety categories were merged... how did it feel to be up against an SNL episode in the writing category? They are completely different animals!
For those keeping score, the other nominees that year were the "All in the Family" episode where the Bunkers visit Mike & Gloria in California, Michael Leeson for "Blind Date" (Taxi) and Alan Alda for the M*A*S*H episode "Inga" (which won, prompting Alda to do a cartwheel on his way to the podium).

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

I was really touched by Ed Asner's tribute. Sometimes twitter isn't awful
Ed Asner
A beautiful woman, a wonderful actress, a great friend and with balls bigger than mine. Her brilliance burst through and shined its light upon all of us. Goodnight beautiful. I’ll see you soon.

Mike Barer said...

She created one of TV's best loved and most relatable characters.

Mike Bloodworth said...

There's little I can ad to what has already been said. Except that I never met Valerie either. Despite the fact that when I was in high school I was a busboy at the CBS-Radford commissary. Ms. Harper never came in to eat.
And just a few years ago I took a couple of improv workshops with her ex husband, Dick Schaal.
As the old cliche goes, "close, but no cigar."
I enjoyed her work. She will be missed.

Matt in Westwood said...

Thanks so much for the VALERIE HARPER tribute. You mentioned having attended numerous RHODA filmings back in the day. Do you attend any particularly memorable episodes or have any fun recollections from any of them to share? Over the course of time, I’ve never encountered anyone who saw that show filmed. Side question: RHODA has been on dvd for years, why not iTunes???

Jim McKairnes said...

This column and the scores of online and on-air tributes / remembrances since last Friday seem to say everything that anyone would want said about them at the end, about how their being here made a difference. I can't add much to it. But ... I can say that one of the coolest and trippiest 30 minutes of my adult TV-biz life came in February of 2009, when, after having had the honor of interviewing VH for her Television Academy Foundation Archive interview (nearly three hours!), I was recruited to give her a lift to the repair place where she'd left her car that morning. The result was this: a geeky ten-year old who fell in love with TV and TV writing in 1970 upon the premiere of MTM show, now badly disguised as a nearly 50-year-old TV exec, giving Rhoda a ride to the tire shop. I never drove more carefully in my life, white-knuckle fearing a random fatal accident on the way and the inevitable "CBS Exec Kills Rhoda" headline that would follow. From Lankershim in North Hollywood to the Fairfax area intersection of Beverly Blvd and (yes, wait for it) Harper Ave -- singing the praises of her late TV-father Harold Gould at one point as we passed Gould Avenue off Laurel Canyon -- she was witty, thankful, engaging, interesting and, best, interested in her driver and his life. In the parking lot at the shop, she jumped out of the car with a thank-you and a flourish, wishing this fellow Catholic a two-weeks early Happy St. Patrick's Day. "To you, Jim!" Then before she got to the shop's door, she turned around and said, with a wave, "And to me, too!"

Buttermilk Sky said...

Ed Asner's tribute made me cry.

I'm a little surprised by all the comments on Valerie's ethnicity. Most of the EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND cast was Jewish or Irish (Peter Boyle, Doris Roberts, Brad Garrett). Talent is talent. Speaking of which, RHODA also launched the career of Julie Kavner as Brenda.

Mike said...

Valerie Harper was born to be on TV. She was “approachable beautiful” (as someone said above), and I always found it amusing that a woman as beautiful as Valerie was supposed to be the less desirable best friend of the lead. She had marvelous comic timing. She was warm. I watched several episodes of “Rhoda” and “Valerie” (her 80s vehicle) this weekend. She just lit up the screen. What a legacy she has left.

Ghost of Lou Grant said...

How ironic that in 1970 CBS executives had a policy of not casting characters that were (1) divorced (2) Jewish (3) From NYC or (4) wore a mustache. As we know Mary could not be divorced, but Rhoda was approved. Then a year later CBS placed "All in the Family" on the schedule with a show and characters located in NYC and a character that wore a mustache (Mike). Considering that CBS, based in NYC, just executed its "Rural Purge" and wanted to change its appeal to advertisers, it would seem odd to be opposed to urban characters.

ScarketNumber said...

You left out the part where she was fired off of her own show and replaced with Sandy Duncan.

Gary West said...

Met her... loved her in person and on TV. She was terrific. Rhoda was such a great character. So well done. RIP Valerie Harper.

Philly Cinephile said...

Saw her on Broadway (in "Tale of the Allergist's Wife" giving a great performance) and hung around afterward to meet her. Not the sort of thing I usually do, but I grew up on Valerie Harper. She was beyond gracious, taking the time to sign autographs and speak directly to each person who was there. A friend of mine who works in the industry met Valerie and said that she was one of the nicest people she ever met. When their paths crossed a second time, Valerie remembered my friend and approached her to say hello.