Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper Didn't Always Get Along Off-Screen As Well As "Mary" and "Rhoda" On TV

Herbie J Pilato

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[TVInsider.com]

As revealed in the book, Mary: The Mary Tyler Moore Story, Moore and actress Valerie Harper, with whom she co-starred in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, did not get along as well as their characters, Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern, on that famed 1970s TV sitcom.

Moore, who passed away in 2017, and Harper, who died in 2019, did not always see eye-to-eye. The book claims Harper was a scene-stealer. Her performance as Rhoda was very popular on the show, but there was some professional jealousy on Moore's part. At times, the actress, who first found TV fame as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, was not all that thrilled with working with Harper.

As author/producer Rick Lertzman relayed in Mary: The Mary Tyler Moore Story, “Even though the Rhoda character was kind of one-dimensional, Valerie’s popularity was growing. Valerie was becoming more of an influential presence on the show. A lot of the time when some figure in a show gets too big, there’s always a conflict with the main actor.”

Consequently, that scenario led to Harper's spin-off sitcom, Rhoda, which aired from 1974 to 1978 (one year after the Moore series was canceled. But as also pointed out in the Mary biography, that development worked out for Moore, double-fold. She was only too happy to once again be the main focal point of her sitcom, while Harper's new show was a product of Moore's production company, MTM Enterprises, in which her then-husband Grant Tinker was her business partner as well.

According to the Mary book, Moore and Tinker cared for one another, and both considered Harper as family. But as with all close friends and family interactions, still-waters don’t always run deep. In fact, they got a little choppy.

The storm really began to brew when, decades later, Moore and Harper reunited for the 2000 TV movie, Mary and Rhoda, which was originally envisioned as a backdoor pilot for a new weekly series. As explained in the Mary bio, the two actresses were business partners in the new movie. But Moore was reluctant about allocating any supervision to Harper. Consequently, Harper was not satisfied, and the potential Mary and Rhoda series never happened.

As is also made clear in the Mary book, original Mary Tyler Moore Show director Jay Sandrich viewed the reunion film as "a terrible idea."

“Mary can’t play Mary Richards anymore," he said. "But Valerie could. Valerie should have played Mary.”

As further documented in the Mary book, “Sandrich was implying that Mary simply did not look the part anymore. Both her extensive plastic surgery and her frail health contributed to her literal and figurative weak performance in the movie. The warm character traits of Mary Richards were oddly missing from Mary’s new rendition, whereas Harper’s performance as Rhoda was now bizarre, but still audience accessible.”

Also pointed out in Mary is how, during Harper's promotion of her book, I, Rhoda, in 2013, she appeared on Howard Stern's radio show. When asked if she thought Moore was ever jealous of her, Harper did not reply.

Yet, as explained in Mary: The Mary Tyler Moore Story, Harper acknowledged that her most famous TV character was partially envious of Moore’s on-screen Mary Richards. “There was a part of Rhoda that was very protective of Mary,” Harper said, “… like an older sister. And there was a part that was jealous of that model’s body.”

Further still, according to the Mary biography, Harper once said, "Rhoda wishes she were Mary. But it doesn’t manifest itself as jealousy. She knows that Mary may have [a] great job and [a] great figure, but Rhoda’s from New York. She knows she’s got to straighten this shiksa out.'”

Bill Persky, who wrote for The Dick Van Dyke Show and was close friends with Moore until her demise, concluded in the Mary book that she and Harper “had their ups and downs.”

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA
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