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R.I.P. Valerie Harper, star of Rhoda and Valerie

Photo: Albert L. Ortega (Getty Images)

Valerie Harper, TV’s Rhoda and Valerie, has died. Harper, who had battled lung cancer which had spread to her brain, was confirmed to have died by her family today. She was 80.

Harper was born August 22, 1939 in Suffern, New York. As a child, she moved all over the country with her family, but eventually chose to set roots in New York City to train in ballet. She debuted on Broadway at age 20 as a chorus girl in a production of Li’l Abner, and went on to dance in shows that starred Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason.

By the ‘60s, Harper remained on stage but had switched from dance to acting and began taking lessons from Viola Spolin, “the mother of improvisational theater.” Paul Sills, Spolin’s son and founder of the Compass Players—a precursor to The Second City—recruited Harper for one of his touring groups. Harper met and married fellow improv performer Richard Schaal while with Second City; they were married for 14 years and later appeared in two sitcoms together (The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda).

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Harper had a handful of TV guest spots under her belt before landing her most famous role, Rhoda Morgenstern onThe Mary Tyler Moore Show, in 1970. She charmed audiences as Mary Richards’ (Mary Tyler Moore) outspoken best friend and neighbor. In many ways, Rhoda was meant to be the anti-Mary—abrasive, insecure, and fumbling through life—and the two characters even had a friendly rivalry. But Harper’s portrayal turned those qualities into an endearing combination, and she won three consecutive Emmys for her work. The two women also established a friendship that lasted even after Harper went on to star in her own sitcom.

Harper would become indelibly linked to Rhoda Morgenstern in 1974, when her eponymous spinoff premiered. Rhoda saw the titular character return to New York and, despite her perceived shortcomings, quickly fall in love with and marry Joe Gerard (David Groh). The seventh episode of the first season—the wedding episode—drew 52 million viewers and at the time was the second most-watched TV episode ever. Harper won her fourth Emmy for playing Rhoda and also picked up a Golden Globe in 1974.

Despite Harper’s strong performance, Rhoda was canceled in 1978. In between sitcoms, she had starred with James Caan in 1974’s Freebie And The Bean, a film that saw her nominated for a Golden Globe for “New Star Of The Year.” She then appeared in multiple TV movies before landing a third sitcom in 1986, Valerie, where Harper played a working mom trying to raise three boys with a pilot husband whose work kept him away. Unfortunately, Harper was fired from the show over a salary dispute at the end of the first season, and the show was repackaged as The Hogan Family with Sandy Duncan.

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Harper continued to work steadily in TV throughout the ’80s and ‘90s, mostly in sitcoms; She was reunited with Moore in the 2000 ABC TV movie, Mary and Rhoda, which caught up with the women, now mothers, after divorces and the death of a spouse.

In 2009, Harper was diagnosed with lung cancer, but was given a good prognosis once the tumor was removed. Doctors later found that the cancer had spread to her brain and spinal cord, and other treatments were begun. She joined women’s lung health initiative LUNG FORCE while still battling the incurable disease.

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Harper returned to Broadway and appeared in several shows over the last decade; her portrayal of silver screen star Tallulah Bankhead in Matthew Lombardo’s Looped earned her a Tony nomination. She also had guest spots on comedies like Hot In Cleveland and 2 Broke Girls in recent years.

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