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The huge response from fans and entertainers to the sad news that Valerie Harper is battling terminal brain cancer marks a tribute to an actress who created an iconic TV character in Rhoda Morgenstern more than 40 years ago
Her decision to go public with her private fight marks a tribute of another sort to the character of Harper. The 73-year-old actress’ interview with People magazine and upcoming round of TV appearances amount to a brave, bittersweet final thank you to fans.
Harper, in her darkest hours, recognizes the value – and hopefully finds a modicum of comfort in – the deceivingly deep, enduring connection between top TV stars and viewers.
She made it easy to bond with Rhoda. Harper took the archetype of the wacky next-door neighbor, a TV convention with roots in the classic likes of "I Love Lucy" and "The Honeymooners," and added layers by imbuing Rhoda with a relatable, if decidedly New York-flavored, soul.
In this tarnished golden age of great TV storytelling and comedy mixed with too much “reality” junk, there are few current performers/characters ingrained not only in the pop culture psyche, but in our hearts. The longing for such a connection can be seen in the unlikely, ongoing lovefest for the great Betty White, one of Harper’s fellow “MTM” stars.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.