Though she's not known for it, Valerie Harper, like Mary Tyler Moore, started out as a dancer and chorus girl, appearing on Broadway with Lucille Ball in the musical Wildcats. She also played one of the hillbilly wives in the 1959 film version of the musical Li'l Abner. But dancing was soon left behind when Harper met future husband (one of two) Dick Schaal, a member of Chicago's Second City. Harper joined the famed improvisational troupe herself, it quickly become her true forte wasn't dancing but (like Moore) comedy. Harper and Schaal eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where, around 1970, she was asked to audition for a new situation comedy starring Dick Van Dyke Show veteran Moore titled The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Moore died two years ago, and in my obit for her I spent a paragraph discussing Harper and her character:
Rhoda Morgenstern (Valarie Harper) The Mary Tyler Moore Show is often thought of as a "workplace comedy", but in the early years the series was neatly divided between Mary Richard's professional life and her personal life. If Lou Grant was the linchpin of the former, then wisecracking upstairs neighbor and best friend Rhoda served the same function in the latter. Not that the two worlds didn't occasionally merge, as Rhoda eventually becomes a familiar figure to the WJM-TV gang (MARY: Rhoda, you know my boss, Mr. Grant? RHODA: Oh, yeah. Hi, Lou!) Rhoda also figures into the workplace stories in another way. Whatever was going on in the newsroom, Mary was sure to tell Rhoda about. Just as what was ever happening in the many Rhoda-centric episodes, the WJM bunch was to find out through Mary. Nevertheless, it was outside of work that this relationship mattered. Mary and Rhoda forged a female friendship that rivaled that other sitcom pair, Lucy and Ethel. And without having to don disguises so as to sneak into a nightclub act. Pals and confidants as the song goes. Despite many differences between them. Mary was a WASP. Rhoda was Jewish. Mary grew up in the Midwest, Rhoda was from the Bronx in New York City. Mary was the daughter of a doctor, Walter (played by Bill Quinn), and thus probably grew up in the upper-middle class. I'm not sure what Rhoda's father, Martin (played by Harold Gould), did for a living--the internet is coming up short--but Rhoda has a kind of working-class brashness about her. What made this friendship especially intriguing, as well as comically tense at times, is that Rhoda had an inferiority complex that seemed centered on her best friend! Though roughly the same age, Mary was certainly the more mature of the two, and could sometimes come across as more as an older sister than a best friend. Rhoda was more streetwise, or at least came across as more streetwise, and sometimes called her more mature friend "kid" as a way of putting her in her place. But the main point of contention is that Rhoda envied Mary her good looks. Now, to my eyes, and no doubt to yours, too, Rhoda was herself a damn good-looking woman. True, in the early years of the show she had a weight problem. I know this because she would tell everyone, and especially Mary, that she had a weight problem ("I don't know why I'm putting this in my mouth. I should just apply it directly to my hips.") Eventually, she loses the excess pounds and even wins a beauty contest at the department show where she works (in an episode written by Treva Silverman, often credited for, if not creating, then at least fine-tuning, the character of Rhoda.) What vexes me is that in those episodes where's she supposed to be overweight, she merely looks to my eyes to be wearing baggy clothes. Nor is there any evidence that Valarie Harper (who like Moore started out as a dancer) ever had a weight problem. So did Harper just wear baggy clothes to convince us that the character she played was overweight, or maybe, just maybe, the character of Rhoda was never overweight to begin with, but just THOUGHT she was? I suspect the latter, but can't prove it. Anyway, the new, improved Rhoda didn't hang around for long. No, I don't mean she put the weight, or the baggy clothes, back on. She got her own show!
A spinoff, actually, titled Rhoda. So she got to play the same character but in a far different setting. Rhoda returns to her home town of New York City just for a visit, and meets, through her sister Brenda (Julie Kavner), handsome hunk Joe Gerald (David Groh), a divorcee who owns a wrecking company and has a ten-year-old son Donny. This all happens in the first episode, which achieved a number-one Nielsen rating, the first time that ever happened for a series premiere. And it hasn't happened again in the 40 years since! So Rhoda decides to stay in New York permanently, dating Joe for the first eight weeks of the series, while at the same maintaining a comic relationship with the aforementioned Brenda (who has her own weight-and-self-esteem problems), the drunken doorman Carlton (producer Lorenzo Music), never seen but whose voice could be heard over the apartment intercom, and parents Ida and Martin, both of whom had earlier appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (indeed, in the case of Ida, those appearances had revitalized Nancy Walker's career.) After some haggling--they briefly live together--Joe pops the question, Rhoda accepts, and a wedding the wedding is held in her parents apartment. Among the guests are TMTMS characters Mary Richards, Lou Grant, Murray Slaughter, Georgette Franklin, and, uninvited, Phyllis Lindstrom. The latter is given the task of driving Rhoda to the wedding, but forgets, and so the bride-to-be takes the subway and runs through the streets of Manhattan and the Bronx in her wedding dress. All of what I just described was a major media event in 1974. I mean, a real life major media event. The episode was watched by 52 million Americans, half the TV viewing audience, the highest ever up to that time. Why? Because people (including myself) loved Rhoda, and liked the fact that she finally got a happy ending. Unfortunately, that happy ending proved to be the series undoing.
The problem was, there's nothing particularly funny about a happy ending. Oh, sure, lot of movie comedies end happily, but that happiness is immediately followed by the closing credits. A TV series, if it's successful, is going to be there again and again and again. Which, in the case of a comedy, should mean laughs, and laughs, and more laughs. But on Rhoda, those laughs were in increasingly short supply. The marriage was awkward. On The Mary Tyler Moore Show Rhoda was known for her cutting remarks, but such remarks might wreck the marriage on her own series. So she held back. The series became very unfunny, while sitting at the top of the ratings. Then one day the producers decided the only way to make the show funny again was to have Rhoda and Joe divorce. And when that divorce happened, the show became much funnier. It also plunged in the ratings.
Wait a second! High ratings when the show is unfunny, and low ratings when the show is the opposite. What gives? Well, TV viewers no longer cared about funny. Rhoda wasn't a clown. She was their friend, a friend they never met and would never meet because she was totally fictional. No matter. Their friend deserved a happy ending, no matter how unfunny! Rhoda lasted five seasons, not bad for TV show back then, but by the time it was canceled, the one-time Neilsens champ could only muster a meager 94 in the ratings.
Afterwards, Valerie Harper did the usual ex-TV star things. Broadway knew she could be a draw, and so she played Tallulah Bankhead in one show, and Golda Meir in another. There was another sitcom in the 1980s, Valerie, which she was fired from over a salary dispute (the series carried on as The Hogan Family.) Ten years ago, Harper was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was 70 at the time, and it was assumed her stay on this Earth would soon end. But she made it to 80 anyway. Say what you want about the Grim Reaper, but he was far more generous toward Harper than the Nielsens.