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Valerie Harper (1939–2019), star of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Rhoda"

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Harper won four Emmys and a Golden Globe as she portrayed the colorful and spunky Rhoda Morganstern in the two sitcoms

Valerie Harper was the Emmy-winning actress who starred in TV's "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Rhoda," playing the colorful and spunky Rhoda Morgenstern. She also appeared in movies including “Freebie and the Bean” and “Chapter Two,” for which she received Golden Globe nominations, and she was Tony-nominated for her work on Broadway.  

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Died: August 30, 2019 (Who else died on August 30?)   

Details of death: Died of leptomeningeal carcinomatosis at the age of 80. 


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Born Aug. 22, 1939, in Suffern, New York, Harper was the daughter of a nurse and a salesman, and she grew up all over the country as her family moved around to accommodate her father's job. She trained as a ballerina and got her start as a performer on Broadway, getting work as a dancer and chorus girl. But she dreamed of acting, and her talent for comedy got her noticed by Chicago's Second City, where she worked for several years in the 1960s. 

In 1970, Harper got her big break with a supporting role on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Playing Rhoda Morgenstern, the wisecracking neighbor of Moore's character, Harper won three Emmy awards in three consecutive years, 1971, '72 and '73.  

So popular was Harper’s character that she was spun off into her own show after the fourth season. "Rhoda" ran from 1974 to 1978 and was a hit, becoming the first and, to date, only show to achieve a No. 1 Nielsen rating with its pilot episode. Harper won a fourth Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance in “Rhoda,” and the 1974 episode in which her character married her fiancé was another ratings juggernaut, watched by more than half of the U.S. viewing audience. 

After the final season of "Rhoda," Harper appeared in a number of television movies and starred in a third sitcom, "Valerie," beginning in 1986. This series didn't achieve the success of her previous shows, and Harper was removed from her role after the second season, though the show continued for additional seasons under other names.  She sued Lorimar Television for wrongful firing, and the jury agreed, awarding her $1.4 million in compensation. 

In later years, Harper saw new success onstage, playing Golda Meir in the one-woman show "Golda's Balcony" and receiving a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Tallulah Bankhead in "Looped." She also made appearances on television shows including “Touched By an Angel,” “Melrose Place,” and “Drop Dead Diva,” and she voiced several characters on “The Simpsons.” 

Harper was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009. In 2013, she announced that the cancer cells had spread to her brain and she was fighting leptomeningeal carcinomatosis. Her prognosis was poor, with doctors suggesting she had just months to live, though she responded to chemotherapy and lived substantially longer than originally predicted. 

Harper is survived by her husband, Tony Cacciotti, and their daughter, Cristina. 

Harper on her fight with cancer: “It’s not so much about resisting death. It’s accepting that it’s there and then making sure that I’m living to my utmost potential.” —From a 2015 interview with Coping With Cancer   

What people said about her: “One of our all-time favorites has passed. Wonderful, funny, lovely, supportive and a huge influence on and off stage, we love you, Valerie.” —Phil Rosenthal, executive producer of “Everybody Loves Raymond”   

“Sad to hear about the passing of Valerie Harper. She was incredibly courageous facing cancer with humor and grace. Thinking of her devoted family, friends, and many fans. Like Mary Tyler Moore she could turn the world on with her smile.” —Robin Roberts, “Good Morning America” anchor   

“Thank you brilliant Valerie — you gave us so much!” —Actress Mia Farrow   

Full obituary: The New York Times

Related lives:   

  • Mary Tyler Moore (1936–2017), star of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”
  • David Groh (1939–2008), played Joe Gerard on “Rhoda”
  • Georgia Engel (1948–2019), played Georgette on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”