Childhood & Early Years
Valerie Kathryn Harper was born on August 22, 1939, in Suffern, New York. Her father, Howard Donald Harper, was a lighting salesman, while her mother, Iva Mildred née McConnell, was a trained nurse.
She was the second of her parents’ three children. She has an older sister named Leah and a younger brother named Merrill (later renamed Don). From her father’s second marriage, to Angela Posillico, she has a half-sister named Virginia.
Because of her father’s job, she spent her childhood in various places, moving first to South Orange and then to Pasadena, where she was enrolled at ‘St. Andrews.’ Later, they moved to Monroe and then to Ashland, finally settling in Jersey City, where she remained till the age of 18.
In Jersey City, she studied at ‘Lincoln High School.’ However, she did not graduate from there. When her family returned to Oregon, she remained in the New York City area to study ballet, ultimately graduating from the ‘Young Professional School.’
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Valerie Harper began her career as a dance and chorus girl in ‘Broadway,’ appearing in a bit role in the ‘Broadway’ production of ‘Li'l Abner’ in 1956. The same year, she debuted in films, appearing as a dancer in ‘Rock Rock Rock.’
She earned her first credited role in October 1959, when she was cast as an entertainer in the ‘Broadway’ production of ‘Take Me Along.’ The same year, she appeared in the film version of ‘Li'l Abner.’
She spent the early 1960s appearing as a dancer in stage productions such as ‘Wild Cat’ (1960–1961) and ‘Subways Are for Sleeping’ (1961–1962). In 1963, she made her TV debut, appearing as ‘Mrs. Steiner’ in an episode of ‘The Doctors,’ titled ‘Zip Guns Can Kill.’
In 1970, while doing theater in Los Angeles, she was spotted by casting agent Ethel Winant. Eventually, she signed up for the role of ‘Rhoda Morgenstern’ in the sitcom named ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’ She appeared in 92 episodes of the sitcom, till 1974.
From 1974 to 1978, she reprised the titular role in ‘Rhoda,’ a spin-off of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ appearing in 110 episodes of the series. ‘Freebie and the Bean’ (1974) and ‘Chapter Two’ (1979) were two of her other important works of that decade.
She appeared as the family matriarch ‘Valerie Hogan’ in the ‘NBC’ series ‘Valerie’ (later renamed ‘The Hogan Family’) in 1986. However, at the end of the second season, she was fired because of a salary dispute with the production company.
Valerie and executive producer Tony Cacciotti sued the makers and were paid $1.82 million in damages, which they donated to various charities.
In 1990, she found a new starring vehicle when she was cast as ‘Liz Gianni’ in ‘City.’ She appeared in all its 13 episodes. Thereafter, she continued to appear in guest roles in various TV series. Also in 1990s, she appeared in six TV movies.
In 2000, she reprised the role of ‘Rhoda Morgenstern’ in the TV film ‘Mary and Rhoda,’ starring in it with her ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ costar Mary Tyler Moore. It was followed by another big role in ‘Dancing at the Harvest Moon’ (2002). Concurrently, she continued appearing in various TV series.
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In 2005–2006, she portrayed Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister of Israel, in a US national tour of the one-woman drama. Titled ‘Golda’s Balcony,’ the production was released as a film in 2007.
In 2009, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. In 2013, she was found to be suffering from leptomeningeal carcinomatosis. In spite of this, she continued to work till 2016. She played ‘Tallulah Brockman Bankhead’ in the stage production of ‘Looped’ (2008 to 2010). It was one of her most important works of this period.
Her memoir, ‘I, Rhoda, A Memoir,’ was released in 2013.
She appeared as a contestant in the 17th season of ‘Dancing with the Stars.’
Family & Personal Life
In December 1964, Harper married actor Richard Schaal. The couple divorced in January 1978.
On April 8, 1987, she married producer and actor Tony Cacciotti. In 1983, the couple adopted a daughter, Cristina.
In 2009, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. On March 6, 2013, it was announced that she had developed leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare condition in which cancer cells spread into the meninges. Although the doctors gave her only 3 months to live, she continues to fight to this day.
In the 1970s and the 1980s, Harper was involved in the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ and was an advocate of the ‘Equal Rights Amendment.’