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Valerie Harper, Best Known for Her TV Portrayal of Rhoda Morgenstern, Has Died

The Emmy-winning actress was 80 years old.

Valerie Harper has died at the age of 80.
(© David Gordon)

Tony Award nominee and television icon Valerie Harper, best known for her long-running portrayal of window dresser Rhoda Morgenstern on the classic sitcoms The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, has died at the age of 80.

Harper, the daughter of a nurse and a lighting salesman, was born in Suffern, New York, though frequently relocated to various parts of the country due to her father's line of work. She began her career as a Broadway dancer, appearing in the 1959 Bob Merrill, Joseph Stein, and Robert Russell musical Take Me Along, based on the play Ah, Wilderness! by Eugene O'Neill. She followed that up with chorus roles in the musicals Wildcat (starring Lucille Ball) and Subways Are for Sleeping (1961), a stand-by position in the Carl Reiner play Something Different (1967), and various roles in Paul Sills' Story Theatre and Ovid's Metamorphoses (1971).

After a 30-year absence from the Broadway stage, she returned in 2001 to take on the title character in Charles Busch's comedy, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, replacing the role's originator, Linda Lavin. She made her last Broadway appearance in 2010, when she played legendary film star Tallulah Bankhead in the comedy Looped, for which she received a Tony Award nomination. Harper was to lead the production's national tour, as she did with Allergist's Wife and the drama Golda's Balcony (which was subsequently filmed), but was forced to bow out due to her illness.

It was while doing theater in Los Angeles in 1970 that Harper's career took off. She won the part of Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, playing the character from 1970-74, then starring in Rhoda, a Harper-focused spin-off, from 1974-78. She played the character once again in the 2000 television film Mary and Rhoda, which reunited Harper and Mary Tyler Moore. For her portrayal of Rhoda Morgenstern, Harper received four Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe. Harper's television credits also include two seasons on the NBC sitcom Valerie, two dozen TV movies, as well as guest appearances on series including Melrose Place, Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, Drop Dead Diva, and The Simpsons.

Offscreen, Harper was a crusader for the women's liberation movement and the Equal Rights Amendment, working alongside the likes of Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem. She also worked with the Hunger Project and RESULTS to fight for the end of world hunger. Her experiences are recounted in her autobiography, I, Rhoda, which was released in January 2013.

Harper is survived by her husband, Tony Cacciotti, and their daughter, Cristina.

Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead in Broadway's Looped.
(© Carol Rosegg)