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Valerie Harper Biography


Home > Actresses > H > Harper, Valerie > Biography


Birth Name: Valerie Harper
Born: 08/22/1940
Birth Place: Suffern, New York, USA


Valerie Harper was born on Aug. 22, 1939 in Suffern, Rockland County, NY, to Iva McConnell, a Canadian-born nurse, and Howard Donald Harper, a lighting salesman whose itinerant career often uprooted the family. By the time she entered high school, Harper had lived in New Jersey, Southern California, Michigan and Oregon. Inspired by the 1948 film "The Red Shoes," Harper dreamt of becoming a dancer from a very young age. When her family packed up their Jersey City digs and moved back to Oregon, Harper opted to stay behind in New York City where she began to train in ballet. While a student at Manhattan's Young Professionals School, 16-year-old Harper auditioned and earned a coveted spot as a chorus girl in the Radio City Corps de Ballet. Following graduation, she enrolled at Hunter College and the New School for Social Research, where she dabbled in the liberal arts, taking courses in French and philosophy. But Harper's main passion was performance and she gradually segued into acting, landing a plum bit part in the 1956 Broadway musical 'L'il Abner," choreographed by Michael Kidd. Impressed with her skills, he would go on to cast Harper in a string of hit shows on the Great White Way, including "Destry Rides Again" with Andy Griffith, "Wildcat" with Lucille Ball, and "Subways are for Sleeping" (1961), starring Orson Bean. Moving into screen work, Harper's first film role was in director Melvin Frank's 1959 feature adaptation of "L'il Abner."

In the early 1960s, Harper continued to hone her craft as an actress, studying drama under Viola Spolin, the legendary improvisational instructor whose son, Paul Sills, co-founded Chicago's The Second City. Impressed by Harper's raw comedic talent, Sills invited the budding thespian to join the theater company, where she met comic actor Richard Schaal, whom she married in 1964. In 1967, Harper returned to Broadway with roles in Carl Reiner's "Something Different" and Sills' production of Ovid's "Metamorphosis" (1970). That same year, with little television experience, save for a few uncredited extra appearances, Harper was cast as Rhoda Morgenstern, the charismatic, tough-talking Jewish neighbor from the Bronx on the hit sitcom "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," a role that would earn Harper three consecutive Emmy Awards (1971-73) for Outstanding Supporting Actress and catapult her to international stardom alongside the rest of the ensemble cast. In 1974, CBS gave their new headscarf-sporting golden girl her own spin-off series, the top-rated "Rhoda," for which she would win the 1975 Emmy and a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy Series, as well as Harvard's Hasty Pudding Woman of the Year award. An immediate hit, the spin-off followed Harper's beloved character as she moves back in with her overbearing, overprotective parents (Nancy Walker and Harold Gould) who live in the Bronx. "Rhoda" not only showcased Harper's character as more than TV sidekick, it also broke small-screen records. The hour-long wedding special between Rhoda and Joe Gerard (David Groh) was the highest-rated TV episode of the 1970s - a record broken by ABC miniseries "Roots" in 1977 - and featured guest appearances from Harper's former co-stars, including Moore and Ed Asner.

At the same time her own sitcom was taking off, Harper further charmed on the big screen with her on-point rendering of a Puerto Rican housewife in "Freebie and the Bean," a memorable action caper co-starring James Caan and Alan Arkin. For her work in the movie, Harper received a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer - Female - which was ironic, considering she had been stealing scenes from Moore for years. Around this same time, she became actively involved with The Hunger Project, a philanthropic organization committed to ending world hunger, an affiliation that would continue throughout Harper's life. When "Rhoda" went off the air in 1978, Harper divorced Schaal that same year, bring to an end two significant chapters in her life. She continued to act frequently, stacking up a list of credits both in television and film, including a supporting role in Neil Simons's 1979 comedy "Chapter Two," for which she received a Golden Globe nomination; "The Last Married Couple in America" (1980), opposite Natalie Wood and George Segal; the TV movie "The Shadow Box" (ABC, 1980), directed by Paul Newman and starring Joanne Woodward and Christopher Plummer; and the hit sex comedy "Blame it on Rio" (1984), with Michael Caine and Demi Moore.

In 1986, Harper returned to the small screen as the star of NBC's "Valerie," a family-friendly sitcom on which she plays a housewife whose husband's career as an airplane pilot often took him out of town, leaving Harper to raise their three sons - the eldest played by then-child star Jason Bateman - on her own. The following year, Harper married second husband Tony Cacciotti, her longtime manager and an executive producer on "Valerie." Two seasons into its critically well-received run, Harper was abruptly fired for alleged on-set misconduct in August 1987. Harper and Cacciotti had reportedly been feuding with the network and producers over a salary increase and failed to show up to set for three consecutive episodes. Harper was let go from her namesake show and her character was unceremoniously killed off in a car accident - a radical move that shocked fans and the industry. She was promptly replaced by Tony Award-nominated actress Sandy Duncan of "Peter Pan" fame, with the series also being renamed "Valerie's Family." Subsequently, Harper sued Lorimar Telepictures and NBC for breach of contract and for its continued use of her name in the show's title. Lorimar accused Harper of trying to wrestle control of "Valerie" and demanding more money. Producers deemed her difficult to work with, attributing her behavior to festering jealously over Bateman's burgeoning heartthrob status - rumors Harper consistently debunked.

In the months that followed, Harper and Cacciotti became entangled in one of the most acrimonious courtroom battles in the history of American television production. As the lawsuit raged on, Harper and Cacciotti tried to focus on their family life by adopting a daughter. In 1988, at the end of her namesake sitcom's successful third season, Harper won her case against Lorimar and was awarded $1.4 million in damages plus a percentage of the show's profits. Meanwhile, the series was renamed "The Hogan Family" and ran for six more seasons - due mainly to the appeal of the scene-stealing Bateman. Harper spent the next several years bouncing back from the maelstrom of negative press and attempting to revive her once illustrious TV career, efforts that never fully materialized in the way they had in the 1970s. While she starred in several TV movies, including "Drop-Out Mother" (1988) with Carol Kane, and "Stolen - One Husband" (1990), a comedy co-starring Elliot Gould and Brenda Vaccaro, Harper failed to attach herself to a star vehicle with any sort of network staying power. In 1990, she joined the cast of "City" (CBS), a poorly reviewed, short-lived series created by future Academy Award-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis. In 1995, she landed a leading role on CBS' "The Office" (not to be confused with the NBC sitcom of the same name that ran from 2005-2013), an insipid workplace comedy that was cancelled after just two months.

Fortunately, Harper's love affair with the stage never died, and she continued to act in off-Broadway and regional theater productions, including a 1995 run in "Death Defying Acts," a series of three short plays penned by Elaine May, Woody Allen and David Mamet. Throughout the 1990s and into the millennium, Harper made special guest appearances on "Melrose Place" (Fox, 1992-99), "That '70s Show" (Fox, 1998-2006) and "Sex and the City" (HBO, 1998-2004). In 2000, Harper and Mary Tyler Moore reunited in the ABC TV movie "Mary and Rhoda," where they reprised their iconic TV characters. In 2007, Harper continued to demonstrate her broad range as an actress, fielding rave reviews for her portrayal of Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in the national tour of the one-woman show "Golda's Balcony" and earned a Tony nomination in 2010 for her riveting turn as flamboyant film star Tallulah Bankhead in the Broadway play "Looped." The following year, Harper guest starred on the ABC series "Desperate Housewives" (ABC, 2004-2012) as the aunt of Teri Hatcher and filmed the TV movie "Fixing Pete" (Hallmark Channel). The vivacious actress' health declined after battling lung cancer in 2009 and she underwent surgery to remove a tumor on her top right lobe. Sadly, in March 2013, Harper announced through People magazine that she had been diagnosed with Leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare and terminal form of brain cancer, and was told by doctors that she had only three months to live.

By Malina Saval