Valerie Harper: From Rockland County to "Rhoda"

Herbie J Pilato

According to journalist Stephen M. Silverman and People Magazine, when she debuted as the wise-cracking neighbor from New York on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970, Valerie Harper liked to say, “People identify with Rhoda because she’s a loser.”

But as Silverman continued to report, that was a claim that the actress, who died of brain cancer ion in 2019, "would soon have to deny."

Though the CBS Saturday Moore night sitcom failed to be a ratings winner in its initial year, "Harper took home the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress," Silverman noted. "After that, the show remained solidly in the top 10 for years, and Harper won two more supporting actress awards."

As Silverman also documented, "From that success came the 1974–78 spin-off Rhoda and a Best Actress Emmy. When Rhoda got married, on October 28, 1974, the special hour-long episode shattered ratings records with 52 million viewers — more than half of America’s entire viewing audience."

As Silverman went on to chronicle, "Harper was born in Rockland County, New York in the town of Suffern to parents Iva and Donald. Her mom was a nurse, while her dad was a lighting salesman who traveled the country, taking his family with him. By the age of 13, Harper had lived in New Jersey, California, Michigan, and Oregon.

"Simultaneously taking ballet and attending Manhattan’s School for Young Professionals, Harper debuted professionally at age 16 as part of the Corps de Ballet at Radio City Music Hall, where, at 5 ft., 6 in., she said that she felt “like a klutz next to those other skinny girls.”

"Hoping to graduate from the chorus, where she danced in such Broadway shows as 1960’s Lucille Ball musical Wildcat, Harper seriously plunged into acting lessons, though it was her comedic skills that got her into Chicago’s Second City Theater."

As Silverman concluded, "Some Broadway acting roles did follow, but then TV came to call. With few small-screen credits — and looking 'rather chunky and unprepossessing,' according to The New York Times — in spring 1970, she auditioned among dozens of others to play the Jewish girlfriend of Mary Tyler Moore‘s divorced character on a new sitcom."

In fact, Harper became so popular on the MTM show, that producers created a weekly Rhoda comedy series of her own.

To read more about Valerie Harper, click here.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including RETRO ACTIVE TELEVISION, THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS, 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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