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.
Other “MTM” cast members Ed Asner and Cloris Leachman are slated to join Harper Monday on “The Doctors” in her first TV appearance since she told People: "I just wanted to share this clearly and impactfully through People magazine because y'all read it and you know it and I know Rhoda would be reading it."
Her folksy words are classy and appropriate. It’s all too easy for some fans to confuse a performer with a character. But Harper, who titled her recent memoir “I, Rhoda,” realizes the importance of striking the right balance, even when at a time filled with far graver concerns. Rhoda Morgenstern approached life with sardonic wit. Valerie Harper is facing the end of hers with grace.
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.