Actress Valerie Harper's fame largely rests on her colorful portrayal of television's "New Yawk-er" Rhoda Morgenstern. After growing up in Oregon, Michigan and Jersey City, Harper became a chorus dancer in the Big Apple, hoofing with the Radio City Rockettes and performing in such Broadway musicals as Li'l Abner, Take Me Along, Wildcat and Subways Are for Sleeping. Her first film appearance was in the 1959 movie adaptation of Li'l Abner. While spending her nights on stage, she attended Hunter College and the New School for Social Research, supporting herself between dancing gigs as a telephone canvasser and hat-check girl. During the 1960s, she did comedy-improv work with Second City and Paul Sill's Story Theatre (one of her co-workers during her Sills years was her first husband, comic actor Richard Schaal). In the popular mid-1960s comedy record album When You're in Love, the Whole World is Jewish, Harper can be heard offering an embryonic version of Rhoda Morgenstern, a character she based on her childhood friend Penny Almog. So well-grounded was she in Rhoda-like characterizations by 1970 that she was hired for The Mary Tyler Moore Show (her first regular TV-series gig) on the basis of a one-sentence audition. After winning three Emmies for her Mary Tyler Moore work, Harper was spun off into her own series in 1974, titled Rhoda. Though it opened to excellent ratings (thanks largely to the one-hour episode in which Rhoda married her blue-collar fiance Joe [David Groh]), Rhoda was never as big a hit as Mary Tyler Moore, and it left the air in 1978. During this period, Harper made her formal film debut in Freebie and the Bean (1974), earning a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of a Puerto Rican housewife. After toting up several stage and TV-movie credits, she returned to the weekly-series grind in 1986 with Valerie. She walked out on the show over a salary dispute, whereupon the producers fired her and retooled the series into The Hogan Family, which ran without Harper until 1991. She has starred in two series since leaving Valerie (1990's City and 1995's The Office) but has been unable to latch onto a character with the staying power of Rhoda Morgenstern. Additional appearances in Melrose Place, Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, and Drop Dead Diva followed, Extremely active in prosocial causes off-camera, Valerie Harper was co-founder of an anti-hunger organization called LIFE (Love Is Feeding Everyone).
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Began ballet lessons at age 6 and was dancing in the Radio City Music Hall corps de ballet by age 16.
- Appeared in several Broadway musicals, including Michael Kidd's Li'l Abner (1958) and Wildcat (1960); used her earnings to finance acting classes.
- Moved with then-husband Richard Schaal from New York to Chicago in the mid-'60s so he could join the Second City comedy troupe; she later auditioned and was also accepted, beginning a five-year run with the company.
- Was Linda Lavin's understudy in 1968's Something Different and their stage careers have intertwined ever since: Lavin replaced Harper in Story Theatre, and Harper replaced Lavin in 1995's Death Defying Acts and in 2001's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife.
- Cast as the matriarch in Valerie in 1986; title was changed to Valerie's Family and then to The Hogan Family after she left the series in 1987 due to a contract dispute (she was replaced by Sandy Duncan).
- Cowrote and starred in All Under Heaven, a one-woman show about author Pearl S. Buck that debuted in 1998.
- Penned a memoir (with writer Catherine Whitney and illustrator Rick Tulka) in 2001 entitled Today I Am a Ma'am: And Other Musings on Life, Beauty and Growing Older.