Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Mare's Best Friend Speaks

I just read Valerie Harper's memoir I, Rhoda.  I like the title.  She'll tell us her life story, but she's not kidding herself as to why we care.  Her Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a classic creation.  She played the part for nine straight years, and won four Emmys doing it.  Not to put down her other work, but it's probably the only part most people know her for.

Harper was raised in the 40s and like so many little girls dreamed of being a dancer.  She studied and by the late 50s was appearing in a Broadway chorus.  She regularly worked for famed choreographer Michael Kidd in shows like L'il Abner, Wildcat and Subways Are For Sleeping.  Meanwhile, realizing dancers only last so long, she branched out into acting. Doing improv, she met actor Richard Schaal and they married. Harper was spotted by a casting agent in a play and invited to audition for the new Mary Tyler Moore sitcom.  By this point she'd been to a lot of auditions, and wasn't expecting much, but she was obviously what they were looking for.  The rest of the cast was full of veteran actors, while Harper was a relative novice.

The pilot wasn't scoring that well and some of upper management would have gotten rid of the abrasive Rhoda character, but instead the show's creators--James L. Brooks and Allan Burns--just had Bess, the young daughter of Phyllis (Mary's friend and landlady) say how much she liked Rhoda, so the audience would understand they should like her, too.  The show took a while to become a hit, but almost from the start Mary's sidekick Rhoda was a breakout character.

Harper loved playing Rhoda and found it easy to work with the cast, especially star Moore.  She also helped discover how the character dressed, and Rhoda's head scarf became her trademark.  The real Rhoda had some aspects of Harper, but they weren't that much alike.  For one thing, Harper wasn't Jewish, though to this day fans think she is.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show turned out to be one of the best-written shows ever on television, and wisecracking Rhoda grew into a complex but always funny character.  And as Valerie Harper slimmed down, Rhoda cut down on the self-deprecating gags.

The character was so popular CBS gave her a spinoff.  Instead of Rhoda being unlucky in love, they decided to go in the other direction.  She'd move back to New York and meet the love of her life. Meanwhile, sister Brenda would be the loser--Brenda was the Rhoda of Rhoda.  (A different sister had appeared on an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but she went the way of Chuck Cunningham.) The show started out well, and when Rhoda got married in the first season, the ratings were through the roof.  However, a happy Rhoda is not a funny Rhoda, and the writers weren't sure what to do.  They had Rhoda and husband Joe separate, and eventually divorce, to keep things moving forward, but the show was never the same hit.  For that matter, it was never really in the same class as The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  But it made sense for Harper to leave--her sidekick character had probably gone as far as she could (not to mention the bigger paycheck).

Around the same time Rhoda was divorcing Joe, Valerie was divorcing Dick Schaal--though, according to Harper, it was completely amicable.  The spark had simply gone out of their marriage.

The story continues at this point--we're maybe halfway into the book--but I have to admit it's not as interesting as her MTM days.  Harper got married again--this time it stuck--and raised an adopted daughter.  She appeared in movies, on Broadway, had a TV show where she had to sue the studio after she was fired, had a cancer scare and worked at various political activities. It's a perfectly decent life, but creating a timeless character is a hard act to follow.

PS  While checking out the page for the book, I discovered in May there'll be a new book out on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Can't wait.

PPS As noted in the comments, just today it's come out that Valerie Harper has terminal brain cancer. We certainly wish her whatever luck is possible.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the saga of "Valerie" "Valerie's Family" and "The Hogan Family" - 3 names for a pretty forgettable show- somehow sort of serves as a coda to the Rhoda character

3:55 AM, March 06, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Today's paper said the 73 year old (!) Harper is suffering from brain cancer & has less than 3 months to live.

7:11 AM, March 06, 2013  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I didn't know that. That's too bad. I'd always hoped to meet her some day and tell her how much I loved her on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

9:46 AM, March 06, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Why am I bothering to eat this chocolate? I might as well just apply it directly to my thighs."

12:11 PM, March 06, 2013  

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