Valerie Harper’s iconic Rhoda character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show started out as your standard sidekick but grew into so much more. In the process, she virtually invented the formula behind the most successful single-woman characters on TV today: From The Mindy Project to Girls, we all love to watch a ”Rhoda” — she’s the relatable, the vulnerable, the funny, the empowered one, the opposite of aspirational. Those who worked behind the scenes on The Mary Tyler Moore Show developed a private proverb for explaining Rhoda’s appeal: ”Mary is the woman everyone wants to be; Rhoda is the woman we all are.”
That’s why many of us took it hard, and personally, when the 73-year-old Harper announced on March 6 that she’s been diagnosed with a rare, terminal brain cancer that doctors told her could take her life within three months. I was lucky enough to meet Harper and to speak with her several times while researching Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, my upcoming book about The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And I can tell you that she’s even better in real life than she is on screen, which is quite something.
She has a nearly pathological drive to befriend and help those in her orbit. For me, it was a thrill to sit down to tea with a woman I’d idolized so much as a kid that I wore little head scarves just to be like her. But that thrill multiplied when she took time out of the interview to repeatedly ask me about myself, adopting a motherly concern when it came to my love life and my career. She made it her personal cause to help me finish my book, which she (correctly) saw as a tribute to the show’s feminist legacy, vouching for me with everyone from Betty White to director Jay Sandrich.
I can only hope the outpouring of grief over her diagnosis has shown how much she means to the world. She is just one of those people who makes everyone feel loved in her presence, and whose extraordinary spirit pours onto whatever screen she’s inhabiting. On the set of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cloris Leachman adored her costar’s unwavering support, especially when Harper would shout, ”That’s my girlfriend!” upon seeing Leachman. Mary Tyler Moore writer Treva Silverman says Harper changed her life by thanking her in an Emmy acceptance speech. ”I burst into tears because of the acknowledgment,” Silverman told me. Mary Tyler Moore co-creator/executive producer James L. Brooks sums Harper up thusly: ”Val always just lived. She spills support. It’s almost excessive. All she ever did was pour out love and support.”
Harper, true to her most memorable character, is self-deprecating and embarrassed by such praise. ”Great shows have been done since The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and they will be done in the future,” she told me. ”I don’t believe in ‘the good old days,’ but…it really was good.” And that’s thanks in large part to her, whether she admits it or not.
Armstrong is a former writer for EW. Her book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted will be released May 7. An excerpt will appear in an upcoming issue.