Most popular for playing Rhoda Morgenstern on the TV series The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff, Rhoda, Harper enjoyed a stage and screen career that spanned over five decades. Her final roles included the 2016 short film Stars in Shorts: No Ordinary Love, and recurring voice roles on The Simpsons.
Harper was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2013, after beating lung cancer in 2009. In April 2014, she told ET that her cancer had not spread to other parts of her body, although, Harper pointed out that, contrary to reports at the time, she had not been "cured."
In 2015, Harper began her run as Millicent Winter in a local production of the hit Broadway musical Nice Work if You Can Get It. Harper was replaced from the cast after she was found unconscious backstage at the theater where she was scheduled to perform and rushed to the hospital. She later took to Facebook to explain the cause of her medical emergency and deny reports of being in a coma.
"I am happy to report I am not, nor have I been, in a coma," Harper wrote. "As anyone who has taken strong medication knows, it doesn't always agree with you, even with me as this experience proves."
In July 2019, Harper's husband, Tony Cacciotti, revealed that he decided not to place her in hospice care, despite doctors' advice. "I have been told by doctors to put Val in Hospice care and I can't [because of our 40 years of shared commitment to each other] and I won't because of the amazing good deeds she has graced us with while she's been here on earth," Cacciotti wrote on Facebook. "We will continue going forward as long as the powers above allow us, I will do my very best in making Val as comfortable as possible."
Valerie Kathryn Harper was born on Aug. 22, 1939, in Suffern, New York. She was named after that year's women's doubles tennis champions, Valerie Scott and Kay Stammers. She and her family moved around a lot while she was growing up, and Harper eventually remained in New York City to focus on performing.
Harper made her Broadway debut in the 1959 production of Li'l Abner and soon followed it with a growing number of theatrical roles. It was in New York City where she met her first husband, Richard Schaal, whom she married in 1964. The two stayed together until they divorced in 1978. (She married Cacciotti in 1987. The couple had a daughter by adoption.)
Harper eventually moved to Los Angeles to continue her theater career. It was on the West Coast where she auditioned for the role of Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She co-starred on the CBS sitcom for four seasons and appeared in 92 episodes of the show's run before starring in her own spin-off, Rhoda. She won four Primetime Emmys and a Golden Globe for the role.
Nearly a decade after Rhoda ended, with several TV movies in between, Harper landed her second sitcom, Valerie, in 1986. The actress appeared in 32 episodes before leaving the series following a contract dispute with NBC.
Harper would never star in a TV series again, though she remained present on the small screen thanks to regular guest appearances and recurring roles on hit series such as Melrose Place and Sex and the City.
The actress eventually returned to the stage in 2008 and to Broadway in 2010 as actress Tallulah Bankhead in a production of Looped. She was nominated for a Tony Award for the role, her only stage honor.
In 2013, the same year she was diagnosed with brain cancer, Harper competed on ABC's Dancing With the Starsand was eliminated during the fourth week.
Given only a short time to live, Harper beat the odds and became a spokesperson for cancer research. "I feel wonderful," Harper told ET in 2014. "What luck! Here I am. The three months [prognosis] didn't prove to be correct. The cancer I have is quite rare and terminal and incurable. I'm the recipient of a great research project that has kept me alive."
"In a way, it's a positive thing to know that a year's gone by and it's nowhere else in my body," she told ET.
Despite that confidence (and ever-defiant spirit), the cancer did eventually catch up to her. Harper is survived by her husband and daughter.
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