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Actress Valerie Harper of 'Mary Tyler Moore show' dies at 80

  • 31 Aug 2019

Harper won four Emmy awards playing Rhoda Morgenstern on the classic 1970s TV series "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and her own spinoff sitcom.

Valerie Harper arrives at the ELLE Women in Comedy event, in Los Angeles. June 7, 2016. ( Rich Fury / AP )

Actress Valerie Harper, who won four Emmy awards playing budding feminist Rhoda Morgenstern on the classic 1970s TV series "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and her own spinoff sitcom, died on Friday at the age of 80 in Los Angeles. 

Harper died on Friday morning, her daughter Cristina Cacciotti said, declining to give further details. 

Harper's husband, Tony Cacciotti, said in July that doctors advised that the actress, who was suffering from brain cancer , be placed in hospice care.

Rhoda was lovely and adorable but she had relatable issues with her weight and took refuge in self-deprecating jokes.

Rhoda was for everyone, and she would prove it in back-to-back hit sitcoms that made Harper a breakout star on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," then established her as a funny leading lady in her own series, "Rhoda," scoring guffaws and busting TV taboos as an overweight, brash, Jewish version of the girl next door.

Harper's career cooled after "Rhoda."

In recent years, her appearances were mostly limited to voice work on the animated shows "The Simpsons" and "American Dad." But for years, Harper's appearances had been mostly in the occasional stage and guest-star TV role.

Then in 2013, she was back in the news, and all over TV, when she revealed that just a few weeks earlier she was diagnosed with brain cancer.

This rare condition, leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, occurs when cancer cells spread into the fluid-filled membrane surrounding the brain. (She had battled lung cancer in 2009.)

Harper said she had been told by her doctors she had as little as three months to live. Fans responded as if a family member were in peril.

But while the diagnosis might have seemed like a death sentence, "I'm not dying until I do," Harper said in a TV interview. "I promise I won't."

She continued to work, with guest shots in 2015 on "2 Broke Girls" and "Melissa & Joey" as well as her stage dates.

And she outlived her famous co-star, Mary Tyler Moore, who died in January 2017.

"Women really identified with Rhoda because her problems and fears were theirs," Harper theorised in her book. "Despite the fact that she was the butt of most of her own jokes, so to speak ... her confident swagger masked her insecurity. Rhoda never gave up."

Neither did Harper, who confronted her own insecurities with similar moxie.

But as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" evolved, so did Rhoda. At first, she made jokes about her weight, famously cracking that she the candy she was eating should be applied "directly" to her hips. But Rhoda (and Harper) trimmed down and glammed up, while never losing her comic step. The audience loved her more than ever.

Then, in fall of 1974, the "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" producers spun the character off.

Rhoda was dispatched from Minneapolis back home to New York City ("This is your last chance," she told New York in the opening titles), where she was reunited with her parents and younger sister in a new sitcom that costarred Nancy Walker, Harold Gould and Julie Kavner.

She also met and fell in love with the hunky owner of a demolition firm.

The premiere of "Rhoda" that September was the week's top-rated show, getting a 42% share of audience against competition including Monday Night Football on ABC. And a few weeks later, when Rhoda and her fiance, Joe, were wed in a one-hour special episode, more than 52 million people – half of the U.S. viewing audience – tuned in.

Born in Suffern, New York, into a family headed by a peripatetic sales executive, she spent her early years in Oregon, Michigan and California before settling in Jersey City, NJ.

During "The Mary Tyler Moore," Harper appeared in her first major film, the comedy "Freebie and the Bean," and later appeared in "Chapter Two" and "Blame It on Rio."

The character of Rhoda "taught me to thank your lucky stars for a fabulous friend," Harper noted during a news conference, referring to Mary Richards and pointing to Moore and laughing.

Harper is survived by her husband, Tony Cacciotti, and daughter, Cristina Cacciotti.

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