Valerie Harper, the ’70s TV icon who publicly battled cancer during a return to the stage and as a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars,” has died, a longtime family friend confirmed Friday. She was 80.
The family wasn’t immediately releasing any further details, the friend, Dan Watt, said. Harper’s husband said recently he had been advised to put her in hospice care.
Her career spanned more than 50 years, beginning in 1959 with a bit part in the film “Li’l Abner” and her Broadway debut in “Take Me Along,” starring Jackie Gleason. But Harper would be best known for one indelible TV role.
As Rhoda Morgenstern, first on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” then on the spinoff “Rhoda,” Harper came to embody one of those rare characters whose name evoked an instantly recognizable personality, or as Time Magazine described Rhoda, “a victorious loser.”
But the label was incomplete. Feisty, passionate, intense, lovable, Rhoda was known then (and now) as an “ethnic” character. Until that point, most viewers had rarely seen a self-identified Jewish lead on prime-time television, except for Molly Goldberg, the matriarch played by Gertude Berg on “The Goldbergs” in the late 1950s.
In its first year on the air, “Rhoda” was TV’s top-rated sitcom.
In her autobiography, Harper said that Rhoda “was written for anyone who used humor to hide struggle, sadness and fear. Anyone who dreamed big and fell fast had a friend in Rhoda.”
Harper won four Emmys for the role — two for “Mary Tyler Moore” and two for “Rhoda.”
Ed Asner, who starred as Lou Grant on "Mary Tyler Moore," hailed Harper as "a beautiful woman, a wonderful actress, a great friend."
"Her brilliance burst through and shined its light upon all of us," Asner tweeted. "Goodnight beautiful. I’ll see you soon."
Born in Suffern, in Rockland County, on Aug. 22, 1939, Harper was the daughter of a lighting salesman and nurse and was raised Catholic. As a child, the family moved frequently, finally settling in Jersey City, where she attended a school for the performing arts.
With Broadway across the river, she planned on a career in theater and secured roles on stage in “Wildcat” and “Subways Are for Sleeping.” She married actor Richard Schaal in 1964.
Schaal and Harper were living in Los Angeles when she tried out for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1970. As the best pal to Moore’s perky Mary Richards, Rhoda was neurotic, funny and insecure about her weight, her dates and her job. She was the everywoman with flaws written in large, bold colors and beloved by viewers.
CBS’ chief of programming, Fred Silverman, wanted to do a Rhoda spinoff after the first season. Harper said she thought the term “spinoff” meant she had been fired.
Harper asked to remain on “Mary Tyler Moore,” but that spinoff — in which Rhoda returned home to New York and met and married her first true love — finally came in 1974. “Rhoda’s Wedding,” the episode that aired on Oct. 28, 1974, was seen by 52 million viewers.
“Rhoda” was a big change from “Mary Tyler Moore.” No more fat jokes, no more luckless-at-love story lines. Rhoda was finally happy — which as Harper later wrote was ultimately fatal for the show. Her writers didn’t know how to come up with stories for the newlywed. They decided to have Rhoda and her husband, Joe, get a divorce in season 3. Harper later recalled, viewers “felt betrayed. And [they] were 100 percent behind Joe.”
“Rhoda” was canceled in 1978, the same year she and Schaal divorced. In 1987, Harper married Tony Cacciotti — a producer, personal trainer and restaurateur — who survives her, along with their daughter, Cristina.
Harper’s post-“Rhoda” TV career never approached the culture-bending heights of that role or series. She left the mid-’80s series “Valerie” during the second season after a highly publicized salary dispute. Late in her career she returned to theater, including the 2010 play “Looped” about Tallulah Bankhead, for which she earned a Tony nod.
Harper — a nonsmoker who battled lung cancer in 2009 — announced March 6, 2013, that she had been diagnosed with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a terminal brain cancer. That year, she also appeared as a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.” In 2014, she said the cancer was in remission.
Harper did outlive her famous co-star: Mary Tyler Moore died in January 2017. Ed Asner, Gavin MacLeod, Cloris Leachman and Betty White are among the former cast members who survive her.
In recent years, Harper’s other appearances included “American Dad!” ″The Simpsons” and “Two Broke Girls.”
Speaking of her cancer during a 2013 appearance on the daytime program “The Doctors,” she said: “It’s incurable so far [but] I’m still able to speak and cook my husband’s dinners and walk on the bluff in Santa Monica, and more than anything, I’m living in the moment.
“While you’re living,” she added, “live.”