R.I.P. Valerie Harper, pioneering star of 'Rhoda' and 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show'

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The sitcom legend passed away at 80.

Image: The Everett Collection

UPDATE: MeTV will air a special tribute to Valerie Harper on Sunday, September 8, 5-8PM Eastern, with select episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda. More details can be found here.

Every once in a while, the perfect actress comes along for the right part, and TV history is made. That's how we always think of Valerie Harper, who was cast as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show when she was relatively unknown as an actress. She made the part her own, changing what was originally written to be an adversary into Mary Richards' closest confidante. She was rewarded by lines Moore tossed her way that helped immortalize the snarky humor — and led to the much-loved spin-off Rhoda.

Before Harper became Rhoda, she was a studied dancer, and her storied path to stardom starts in Radio City Music Hall, where she landed her first paying job as a replacement dancer in the Corps de Ballet. She was just 16 years old. From there, her career shifted a few blocks west to Broadway, where she performed as a chorus girl, turning up in productions like Wildcat, starring Lucille Ball. Oh, to see those two legends together on the same stage!

Harper landed a bit role in the film Li'l Abner, a 1959 adaptation of the popular comic strip. But did not move to Hollywood until 1968. One of her earliest gigs out there was co-writing an episode of Love, America Style. It involved a gorilla.

A talent scout for The Mary Tyler Moore Show spotted Harper performing theater in 1970. It was a quick rise to television stardom from there. The wedding episode of Rhoda became the most-watched television episode of the 1970s until Roots surpassed it. A whopping 52 million Americans tuned in to see Rhoda wed Joe. Only Lucy Ricardo's pregnancy had pulled those kinds of numbers in the past.

The Everett CollectionHarper was on of the earliest guest on 'The Muppet Show'

In 1987, Harper returned to the sitcom world as the titular star of Valerie, a family series that cast Jason Bateman as her son. After two seasons, Lorimar Productions and NBC fired Harper from the series and replaced her with Sandy Duncan, eventually changing the show to The Hogan Family. Harper successfully sued Lorimar and NBC and was awarded $1.4 million, plus 12.5% of the show's profits.

Over the past three decades, Harper has steadily worked on screen and stage. The 2000 made-for-TV movie Mary and Rhoda reunited the old friends. She turned up on everything from That '70s Show to 2 Broke Girls, from Sex and the City to Hot in Cleveland. In the last couple of years, she voiced characters on The Simpsons and Family Guy.

Throughout it all, Harper engaged in activism and charity. She fought for equal pay and fed thousands in Los Angeles.

In 2009, Harper was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away on Friday, August 30, according to her family and KABC. She was 80

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Corey 14 days ago
Mary and Rhoda is together again.
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cperrynaples 16 days ago
A funny story about Valarie: When she went on Howard Stern several years ago, Howard asked her to say a secret phrase after the interview so he could prove psychics aren't real! Next week,he's proably going to say he visited psychics this weekend and none of them can guess the phrase!
teire 16 days ago
For me, the Mary Tyler Moore Show lost a certain spark after Rhoda moved to New York. That friendship was such a core part of both shows for me, I liked the episodes where they would appear in each other’s programs, even if it was just a tag at the end.
mdit21 16 days ago
First Mary, now Valerie. This hurts too.
RhodaAllRise99 mdit21 15 days ago
I cried over losing both of them. The only other celebrity whose death I ever shed tears for was Princess Diana.
LucyImHome1951 16 days ago
I hard to put into words how much I and my family loved Valerie Harper. My and my family watch her all the time on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda.I was so happy to see her 80 birthday last week and it's hard to think that she now gone. I going to miss and so will millions of fans. If anyone needs me i'm going to be watching MTM all night long.
VALERIE HARPER: AUGUST 22 1939-AUGUST 30 2019
Steven 16 days ago
Loved her in every MTM scene!
pumkinheadfan 16 days ago
I'm just happy that Shout! Factory was able to put the rest of Rhoda out on DVD before she passed. I think my favorite guest role Valerie did was being Kitty's sister on That 70's Show! She will be greatly missed! RIP Rhoda4ever!
Mydoglucky9 16 days ago
That's sad. I liked Valerie in everything she was in. She will be missed. Rest In Peace Valerie, Rhoda. 😭
Michael 16 days ago
Valerie & Mary had incredible chemistry. I loved watching just the two of them banter back and forth in Mary's apartment on the MTM show
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