LOS ANGELES—Valerie Harper, who scored guffaws, stole hearts and busted TV taboos as the brash, self-deprecating Rhoda Morgenstern on back-to-back hit sitcoms in the 1970s, has died.
Longtime family friend Dan Watt confirmed Harper died Friday, adding the family wasn’t immediately releasing any further details. She had been battling cancer for years, and her husband said recently he had been advised to put her in hospice care.
Harper was a breakout star on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” then the lead of her own series, “Rhoda.” She was 80.
She won three consecutive Emmys (1971-73) as supporting actress on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and another for outstanding lead actress for “Rhoda,” which ran from 1974-78. Beyond awards, she was immortalized—and typecast—for playing one of television’s most beloved characters, a best friend the equal of Ethel Mertz and Ed Norton in TV’s sidekick pantheon.
Fans had long feared the news of her passing. In 2013, she first revealed that she had been diagnosed with brain cancer and had been told by her doctors she had as little as three months to live. Some responded as if a family member were in peril.
But she refused to despair. “I’m not dying until I do,” Harper said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show. “I promise I won’t.” Harper did outlive her famous co-star: Mary Tyler Moore died in January 2017. Ed Asner, 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.”
Harper was a chorus dancer on Broadway as a teen before moving into comedy and improv when, in 1970, she auditioned for the part of a Bronx-born Jewish girl who would be a neighbor and pal of Minneapolis news producer Mary Richards on a new sitcom for CBS.
It seemed a long shot for the young, unknown actress. As she recalled, “I’m not Jewish, not from New York, and I have a small shiksa nose.” And she had almost no TV experience.
But Harper, who arrived for her audition some 20 pounds overweight, may have clinched the role when she blurted out in admiration to the show’s tall, slender star: “Look at you in white pants without a long jacket to cover your behind!”
By John Rogers