Appreciation: With Rhoda Morgenstern, Valerie Harper made the sidekick a star
Valerie Harper, who died Friday at the age of 80, played many parts in a six-decade career, but none for as long or as memorably as Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary Richards’ best friend and confidante on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” from 1970 to 1974 and the Moore-produced “Rhoda” from 1974 to 1978 — shows that have never been far out of reach, as reruns, videos or to stream. There was, of course, more to Harper than Rhoda, but there was no Rhoda without Harper, and you couldn’t fall for one without falling for the other.
Rhoda thinks less highly of herself than we do. She has a fatalistic, sometimes rueful sense of humor — her jokes are always intentional — often directed at her supposed failures. “There was a time when I went to bed thinking, ‘Well, there goes another day not married’; now, I just wait till New Year’s Eve and say, ‘There goes another year not married.’ Mary, I tell you, it’s progress.” In the early seasons, she is bizarrely portrayed as being overweight, when she was nothing of the kind. “You are now a great looking girl,” Mary says after Rhoda purportedly dropped 20 pounds. We are in the third season, and Harper is visibly thinner than before — because, Hollywood, I guess — but she was always a great-looking girl.
Sidekicks typically possess a quality of freedom denied the hero. They don’t need to be conventionally upright, or shoulder a burden, or be anything but themselves. They’re happy in their skin even when they seem ridiculous to the world. For all her self-criticism, Rhoda ultimately comes off as the more confident of the two friends. She is loose where Mary is tight, in body, attitude and dress; she charges ahead where Mary might take awhile to decide. Rhoda often calls Mary “Kid”: She knows some things her friend does not; she’s been around. (She’s from New York!) If Mary had “spunk,” as Ed Asner’s Lou Grant famously observed in the “Mary Tyler Moore” pilot, Rhoda had sass.
Harper’s Rhoda was everybody’s best friend in the 1970s, the gal pal many faithful fans of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” wished they had.
Rhoda is bohemian within the parameters of an early 1970s sitcom: artistic — she’s a window dresser — and often self-employed. Her attic apartment, upstairs from Mary, is hung with fabrics and curtained with beads, furnished with a lamp made from a wicker seamstress’ dummy and a single-girl’s refrigerator. Harper’s background was French, English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh, but Rhoda was at least implicitly Jewish — and with her colorful scarves and gypsy earrings, her dark hair and New York accent, communicated old world soul.
Harper’s own early life might have suited Rhoda. She danced professionally on Broadway and studied theater in the late 1950s and early 1960s; she lived in Greenwich Village and learned improvisation with Second City, a process she described as “close to musicians jamming — you’re listening to each other, really hearing.” (Pay attention to her paying attention: She is never out of a scene.) With her first husband, Richard Schaal, she was a member of Paul Sills’ influential Story Theater. You can hear them on the original cast recording and watch video of their Second City work online.
When Harper went from sidekick to star, she carried her character’s independence and style along with her. America was waiting for her when she arrived: The first episode of “Rhoda,” which premiered in September 1974, was the first (and perhaps the last) pilot episode to top the ratings. The series brought her home from Minneapolis to New York, marrying her off to regular guy Joe Gerard, played by David Groh — and before too long, as if realizing a mistake, divorcing them.
Although ratings took a hit when Groh left the show, to some “Rhoda” fans — yes, me — his absence revealed the real strength of the series: the interplay among its agile female costars, Harper; Nancy Walker as her interfering mother, Ida; and Julie Kavner as Brenda, her reliably lovelorn kid sister. It was an arrangement that also allowed Harper to play the straight woman; on “Mary Tyler Moore,” she’d been the kook, a bearer of punchlines. Men came and went and were somewhat beside the point.
Harper followed “Rhoda” with “Valerie,” in which she played the mother of three. (Jason Bateman was her oldest son.) As a family comedy in the 1980s, it could be issue-oriented and turn serious for long stretches, finding Harper in new keys, always believable, never forced. She left the show after two seasons over a pay dispute; it went on for a while as “Valerie’s Family” and then, with Sandy Duncan in the lead, “The Hogan Family.”
Valerie Harper’s Rhoda Morgenstern showed a generation of women that the strongest person in the room is the one who can land the joke.
After “Valerie,” there was the short-lived “City,” in which she played a city manager, followed by the career of a working actress over 40: some work in the theater; a handful of films; a couple dozen TV movies, including a 2000 reunion with Moore, “Mary and Rhoda”; guest roles on shows including “Touched By an Angel,” “Sex in the City” and “The Simpsons.” Harper worked often enough to remind you that she was still working just about the time you began to wonder about that. One was always glad to see her.
Diagnosed in 2013 with a rare form of cancer and given three months to live, Harper stuck around and continued, when possible, to work. (Rhoda, you feel, would have done much the same.) That same year, she appeared on “Dancing With the Stars” as well as an episode of “Hot in Cleveland” that reunited the “Moore” cast. There were roles to come on “Melissa & Joey,” “2 Broke Girls” and “Childrens Hospital” and, apparently as late as this year, voice work on “American Dad.”
What was probably Harper’s last onscreen appearance dates from 2018 and the “Valentine’s Day” episode of the YouTube Premium comedy “Liza on Demand.” Oddly, it feels like the beginning of a new chapter, with the actress playing to an audience to whom the names Valerie Harper and Rhoda Morgenstern may well mean nothing. Relaxed and natural, dressed for the part in a drab dressing gown and not wearing much or any makeup at all — she is, honestly, quite beautiful — she plays a woman to whom star Liza Koshy, as a worker in the gig economy, mistakenly delivers a box of sex toys. Harper’s character takes this in stride, pronouncing words you will not have heard her say elsewhere, and which I am not sure I am allowed to print in a family paper. But one item she declines to return, “Because I used it already.”
She might have added, “Kid.”
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