Born in Suffern, New York, on August 22, 1939, Valerie Harper began as a dancer in Broadway musicals like Lil Abner,Wildcat and Subways Are For Sleeping. She spent the 1960s studying and performing with Chicago's Second City Theater. In 1970, Harper was cast as Rhoda Morgenstern in the hit sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a role that earned her three consecutive Emmy Awards and a spinoff show of her own called Rhoda.
Early Life As a Dancer
Valerie Harper was born on August 22, 1939, in the small town of Suffern, New York. Her mother, Iva McConnell, was a nurse, and her father, Howard Harper, was a lighting salesman whose job took the family all over the country. After spending her earliest years in South Orange, New Jersey, Harper moved to Pasadena, California; Monroe, Michigan; Ashland, Oregon; and back to Jersey City, New Jersey—all by the age of 13. Asked by an interviewer where she considers home, Harper responded, "You'd call me a Jersey girl."
Inspired by the 1948 British ballet film The Red Shoes, young Valerie Harper dreamed of becoming a ballerina. "I thought, 'Oh God, if I could just grow my hair red and dance like that, I would rule the world.'" She began taking ballet lessons, and when her family moved from Jersey City back to Oregon, a teenage Harper stayed behind to attend Manhattan's School for Young Professionals while continuing her training in ballet.
Harper made her professional debut as a dancer at age 16 in the Corps de Ballet at Radio City Music Hall. After graduating from high school, she continued at the New School for Social Research, where she took courses in French and philosophy. While still in school, she made her Broadway debut as a dancer in the musical Li'l Abner, choreographed by the famous Michael Kidd. After that, Harper danced in a trio of other Kidd-choreographed Broadway shows: Destry Rides Again (1959) with Andy Griffith; Wildcat (1960) with Lucille Ball; and Subways are for Sleeping (1961) with Orson Bean. "I became what you call a 'Michael Kidd dancer,'" she once recalled. However, she turned down another chorus role in the musical Here's Love because, she explained, "I realized that if I was going to be an actress, I needed to not keep dancing in the chorus because you didn't get taken seriously."
For the rest of the 1960s, Harper worked on making her transition from dancer to actress. She began taking acting lessons under famous instructor Viola Spolin, whose son, Paul Sills, founded Chicago's Second City Theater. After seeing her comedic talents, Sills invited Harper to join his company. Spurred on by her work at Second City, Harper returned to Broadway as an actress in Carl Reiner's 1967 production of Something Different and Paul Sills's 1970 production of Ovid's Metamorphoses. It was through her work with Second City that Harper also met Richard Schaal, whom she married in 1964. They stayed together for 14 years before divorcing. (Harper married Tony Cacciotti in 1987, and they have one daughter, Christine Cacciotti.)
In 1970, with no television acting experience on her résumé save a few turns as an extra, Harper was cast in a prominent role in the popular CBS sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Harper played Rhoda Morgenstern, a Jewish girl from the Bronx who befriends her neighbor, Mary. The role instantly transformed Harper into a television star, and she won three consecutive Emmy Awards (1971-1973) for Outstanding Supporting Actress for her performance. In 1974, Harper's character received her own spin-off show, Rhoda. Rhoda also proved a big hit, sometimes even earning better ratings than its parent show. In 1975, Harper won both the Emmy and Golden Globe Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.
Since Rhoda went off the air in 1978, Harper has continued to appear frequently on the big screen and on TV. She has acted in the films Freebie and the Bean (1974), The Last Married Couple in America (1980), Blame it on Rio (1984) and the TV movie Mary and Rhoda (2000). She has also appeared on numerous popular televisions shows, including City (1990), Touched by an Angel (1996, 1999), Sex and the City (1999) and That '70s Show (2001).
In 1986, NBC gave Harper her own show, Valerie, a family-oriented sitcom Harper hoped would revive her career as a television star. However, the show became the source of one of the greatest legal disputes in TV history when, after two seasons, NBC suddenly fired Harper from her own show. Harper sued NBC for wrongful dismissal, demanding damages and an injunction against using her name in the show's title. NBC then countersued Harper for libel. In the end, Harper won some of the damages she sought and NBC changed the name of the show to The Hogan Family.
In her later years, Harper returned to the place where she first made a name for herself—the stage. In 2007, she portrayed former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in a national tour of the one-person show Golda's Balcony. And in 2010, she returned to Broadway to star as actress Tallulah Bankhead in the play Looped, for which she was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress.
In January 2013, Harper received some heartbreaking news. She was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. Doctors gave her only a few months to live. That March, Harper shared her tragic news with People magazine. She remained upbeat despite her terminal illness, telling People that "I don't think of dying. I think of being here now."
By that summer, Harper received some amazing news. She appeared on the Today show in August to discuss how her illness had responded positively to treatment. While her disease is still incurable, Harper has bought herself more time to enjoy her life. She announced in September that she would be joining the cast of Dancing With the Stars. On the dance competition, Harper competed against actress Leah Remini and science expert and television personality Bill Nye among others. She was eliminated after a less-than-stellar performance of a Viennese waltz. Harper told ABC News that she wasn't upset about leaving the show. "I’m happy to have been here for four weeks." She further explained that "If the show’s about good dancing and achieving ballroom styles, I wasn’t there yet."
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