Valerie Harper, the best best friend TV has ever seen | News Coverage from USA

Valerie Harper, the best best friend TV has ever seen

Oh, Rhoda.

If the loss of Valerie Harper to brain cancer Friday at the age of 80 makes you feel like you’ve lost a dear friend, that’s only natural. For seven years, first as a regular and then an occasional guest on what might be the best sitcom ever made, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” her Rhoda was just about the best best friend TV has ever seen.

How could any fan of Harper’s say her name without saying “Rhoda” immediately afterward? From the instant “Moore made its CBS debut in 1970, it was clear the role and the show would make Harper a star, which is precisely what happened.

Her Rhoda was the pal everyone wanted to have and everyone should want to be: funny without being mean, loyal without being dependent, entertaining without being shallow. Whether comforting Mary, complaining about her mom, or battling her landlord (the equally wonderful Cloris Leachman), Rhoda was a joyful, if sometimes sardonic, force to be adored.

Surely, if you grew up with Rhoda and Mary, you’re now hearing Harper’s voice. The perfectly delivered bite of indignation when Rhoda has to be reintroduced to someone she’s met. (“I guess I met you but you didn’t meet me.”) The resignation as she eats a piece of candy. (“I don’t know why I’m putting this in my mouth. I should just apply it directly to my hips.”) The softness in her voice as she tells Phyllis that her brother’s gay, a shocker back in the ’70s, and the look when she realizes Phyllis would rather have a gay brother than Rhoda as a sister-in-law.

As often happens in TV, character and actor blended into one; Harper became Rhoda in the public mind, and both became beloved. If Harper minded, she never let on, perhaps because the role also earned her four Emmys — three for supporting actress and one as the star of her spinoff, “Rhoda.”

But as that spinoff indicates, the role did not freeze Harper in place, as sometimes also happens on TV. Rhoda started off as a slightly abrasive, somewhat chubby New Yorker, obsessed with her weight but doing nothing about it.

But rather than keep her fat (and keep her from competing with the star, as “I Love Lucy” did to Vivian Vance), “Moore” allowed Rhoda to transform. She grew thinner, prettier and more self-confident, finding her own, very ’70s, headscarf-laden style and even winning, in one very touching episode, a beauty pageant.

Though “Rhoda” was a success on its own (the character’s wedding to Joe is one of TV’s highest-rated episodes), Harper is at her best in those “Mary Tyler Moore” episodes — so good, that it’s no great shock that nothing before or after could top it.

Indeed, her biggest hit after “Rhoda,” the 1986 family comedy “Valerie,” is best known for the backstage disputes that caused her to be fired from the show, transforming it into the Valerie-less “Valerie’s Family” and then “The Hogan Family.”

Two other failed series followed, 1990’s “City” and 1995’s “The Office,” but after that it was mostly guest work on TV and starring roles on stage. Those concluded memorably with a Tony-nominated 2010 turn as Tallulah Bankhead in “Looped,” a show she was supposed to tour in before her illness. 

Like her last work, most of Harper’s early work was on stage, in such shows as “Take Me Along,” “Wildcat,” “Destry Rides Again,” “Subways Are for Sleeping” and “Paul Sills’ Story Theatre.” Outside of a TV production of “Story Theatre,” those performances are now unavailable for us to see — except for one.

She did re-create her chorus role in “Li’l Abner” in the 1959 film, and while you won’t find her in the credits, she’s easy to spot. She’s the one with the pigtails that sweep out from the sides of her head (look especially in the “Put ‘Em Back” number), most often found standing near Beth Howland, who would go to play Vera in “Alice.”

It’s a much younger Harper than the one we met on “Moore,” in a much smaller part. But it’s nice to watch her and imagine the career that lies ahead, and the joy she would bring to millions of TV viewers.

And still can bring, every time a “Moore” episode repeats.

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