Valerie Harper — best known as Rhoda Morgenstern, the feisty, scarf-wearing best friend of Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off, Rhoda — has died, eight days after her 80th birthday.
Harper’s family confirmed to ABC7 the actress passed away at 10:06 a.m. Friday, but did not immediately disclose her cause of death.
Harper also appeared on Melissa & Joey, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, 2 Broke Girls and Childrens Hospital, among other roles, and did voice work in The Simpson and American Dad.
In 2014, Harper told People magazine that her leptomeningeal carcinomatosis — a condition that occurs when cancer cells spread into the fluid-filled membrane surrounding the brain, known as the meninges — wasn’t progressing, though it was still incurable. “It’s looking better and better each test,” she said. Her fighting attitude was on display as she added, “I don’t wake up saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to die.’ It’s a waste of time. It really is.”
Three years later, her oncologist told the magazine that it was “a miracle she’s still here.” Harper added, “I still have cancer, but I’m OK and most of my days are good.”
However, in July, a GoFundMe was started to raise money for Harper’s “unrelenting medical costs.” (It quickly raised nearly $70,000, but was shuttered after members of the entertainment industry stepped forward to help with expenses.). Soon after, her husband, Tony Cacciotti, shared the grim update that doctors wanted him to put Harper in hospice care. He said he couldn’t “because of our 40 years of shared commitment to each other” as well as “the amazing good deeds” Harper “graced us with while she’s been here on Earth.”
Born in Suffern, N.Y., on Aug. 22, 1939, Harper began her career as a Broadway dancer and chorus girl, appearing in productions that featured fellow future TV comedy legends Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason. She also traveled with Story Theater, a spin-off of the Second City comedy improv troupe, and co-wrote an episode of the comedy anthology series Love, American Style with her first husband, actor Dick Schaal. Harper was working in the Los Angeles theater scene in 1969 when she was asked to audition for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, leading to the role that eventually earned Harper four Emmys and a Golden Globe.
"The core idea of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was to portray people bumping up against people emotionally and intellectually — people coping with others, confronting others, making space for others in a realistic manner. The writers didn't want to make statements. They wanted to reflect life," Harper wrote in her 2013 memoir I, Rhoda. "[The] entire team maintained the highest level of smart comedy — characters and plot — without resorting to slapstick, vulgarity, or cliché. Rhoda was a perfect example of this fine balance. She was Jewish but the writers refused to have her speak Yiddish or satirize her ethnicity for cheap laughs."
After The Mary Tyler Moore Show's fourth season, Harper starred in a spin-off, Rhoda, in which the character moved from Minneapolis and returned to her New York City hometown, married (and later divorced) single dad Joe (David Groh), and continued her career as a window dresser. Rhoda aired for five seasons on CBS and remains the only series in primetime history to have its pilot episode top the Nielsen ratings.
Valerie Harper through the years
Valerie Harper through the years
LOS ANGELES - JANUARY 1: The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Valerie Harper who portrays Rhoda Morgenstern. Image dated 1971. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 2: The Mary Tyler Moore Show: (From L- R) Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards & Cloris Leachman as Phyllis Lindstrom. Image dated September 2, 1971. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 20: (L-R) Actors Ted Knight, Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper and director Jay Sandrich holding their Emmy Awards in the press room at The 25th Primetime Emmy Awards on May 20, 1973 at Shubert Theatre, Los Angeles, California. (Photo by ABC via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - JANUARY 1: RHODA, episode 'Along Comes Mary.' Featuring (from left): Valerie Harper and Mary Tyler Moore. Image dated 1974. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) One of the biggest social events of the new television season takes place October 28 on CBS when Bronx window dresser Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) is married to building wrecker Joe Girard (David Groh) as her old Minneapolis pal Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) looks on happily. Protestant-born Valerie Harper, who played her first dramatic role at the age of 5 in a winter pageant in Orange, New Jersey, has out-scored Monday night football in the race for top television rating.
Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern in Rhoda, 1975. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - May 19: Tony Randall, Flip Wilson and Valerie Harper in the press room at The 27th Primetime Emmy Awards on May 19, 1975 at Hollywood Paladium, Los Angeles, California. (Photo by ABC via Getty Images)
CENTURY CITY, CA - MARCH 9: Actress Valerie Harper attends the Fourth Annual American Film Insittute (AFI) Lifetime Achievement Award Salute to William Wyler on March 9, 1976 at the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City, California. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
NBC MONDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES -- 'Farrell for the People' -- Pictured: Valerie Harper as Elizabeth 'Liz' Farrell -- (Photo by: Gary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Valerie Harper with her body-builder boyfriend Tony Cacciotti of Auburn, N.Y. made her body beautiful.
(Photo By: Rosamilio Robert/NY Daily News via Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - AUGUST 17: Actress Betty White and actress Valerie Harper attend Betty White promotes/autographs copies of her book 'Betty White's Pet-Love: How Pets Take Care of Us' on August 17, 1983 at Hunter's Books in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Valerie Harper Attending a Benefit in Beverly Hills, California. September 1983 (Photo by Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 8: Actress Valerie Harper and boyfriend Tony Cacciotti attend the Sixth Annual Carousel Ball to Benefit the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes on October 8, 1983 at Currigan Hall in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Betty Galella/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 17: Actress Demi Moore, actress Valerie Harper and actress Michelle Johnson attend the 'Blame it on Rio' Premiere Party on February 17, 1984 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 17: Actor Joseph Bologna and actress Valerie Harper attend the 'Blame It on Rio' Los Angeles Premiere on February 17, 1984 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: Actress Valerie Harper attends the 14th Annual Fundraiser Brunch for the Rape Treatment Center of Santa Monica Hospital on September 25, 1988 at a Private Estate in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Actress Valerie Harper. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD - FEBRUARY 17: Actress Valerie Harper, husband Tony Cacciotti and daughter Cristina Cacciotti attend the Circus Vargas' 20th Anniversary Celebration to Benefit the Athletes and Entertainers for Kids on February 17, 1989 at the Fairfield Parking Lot, Hollywood Bowl in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
LOS ANGELES - JULY 25: Actress Valerie Harper attends Press Conference: Celebrities Rally to Announce Participation in the Housing Now! Rally for October 7th in Washington, DC on July 25, 1989 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - DECEMBER 9: Actress Valerie Harper attends the Hollywood Women's Press Club's 50th Annual Golden Apple Awards on December 9, 1990 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
WESTWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 18: Actress Valerie Harper and husband Tony Cacciotti attend the 'This Is My Life' Westwood Premiere on February 18, 1991 at Avco Center Cinemas in Westwood, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JUNE 14: Actress Valerie Harper attends the 21st Annual Nosotros Golden Eagle Awards on June 14, 1991 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Valerie Harper and Mary Tyler Moore during Juvenile Diabetes Foundation Gala - October 10, 1991 at Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Actress Valerie Harper and husband Dr. Tony Caciotti. (Photo by Dave Allocca/DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Valerie Harper and Gavin McLeod attending the Opening night performance of FORUM at the St. James Theatre inNew York City. April 18, 1996 (Photo by Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images)
E366205 3/18/00. Beverly Hills, CA. Valerie Harper with her husband attending the 14th Ann. Genesis Awards. Photo by Brenda Chase Online USA Inc.
Valerie Harper during The 18th Annual Genesis Awards and 50th Anniversary of the Humane Society of the United States - Arrivals at Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California, United States. (Photo by Jean-Paul Aussenard/WireImage)
Valerie Harper attends the Opening Night Performance of 'The Paris Letter' at the Laura Pels Theatre in New York City on 6/9/2005 (Photo by Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 7: Harper's Bazaar Marketing Director, Nicole Fritton (L), and Publisher Valerie Salembier attend a Harper's Bazaar party hosted by Glenda Bailey on September 7, 2005 in New York, NY. Nicole Fritton was recently named Harper's Bazaar's Marketing Director. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 25: Actress Valerie Harper arrives to the 19th Annual Broadway Flea Market & Grand Auction For Broadway Cares on the patio of Bolzano's Bar Cucina September 25, 2005 in New York City.
(Photo by Fernando Leon/Getty Images)
***Exclusive Coverage*** Backstage at 'LOOPED' starring Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead at the Arena Stage - Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C. June 12, 2009 pictured: Valerie Harper & husband Tony Cacciotti (Producer) (Photo by Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images)
Valerie Harper - Grand Marshall attending the 2009 Capital Pride Parade. Washington, D.C. June 13, 2009 (Photo by Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images)
NEW YORK CITY, NY - NOVEMBER 2: Valerie Harper attends ROLEX presents 'AMERICA DANCES' Career Transition For Dancers 24th Anniversary Jubilee at The Grand Ballroom on November 2, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by NICK HUNT /Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - JANUARY 10: Actresses Jessica Walter (L) and Valerie Harper arrive at the 'Hot In Cleveland' and 'Retired At 35' premiere party at Sunset Tower on January 10, 2011 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Underwood/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 22: Actress Valerie Harper attends The Survivor Mitzvah Project's 'Celebrity Readings' fundraiser at the Museum Of Tolerance on April 22, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 13: Actress Valerie Harper attends a signing for her book 'I, Rhoda' at Barnes & Noble bookstore at The Grove on February 13, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)
DANCING WITH THE STARS - 'Episode 1702' - The competition heated up on a Latin-themed 'Dancing with the Stars' as the celebrities took on new dance routines - a Samba, Jive, Rumba or Paso - and fought for survival, MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 23 (8:00-10:01 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Adam Taylor / ABC Via Getty Images)
AMBER RILEY, VALERIE HARPER, KEYSHAWN JOHNSON, BROOKE BURKE-CHARVET, SHARNA BURGESS, NICOLE 'SNOOOKI' POLIZZI, MARK BALLAS, SASHA FARBER
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 29: Actress Valerie Harper attends the Lung Cancer Foundation Of America's 'Bring On The Change' event on September 29, 2013 at a private residence in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by John M. Heller/Getty Images)
DANCING WITH THE STARS - 'Episode 1704' - 10 remaining couples took to the ballroom floor, with one couple facing elimination at the end of the night, on 'Dancing with the Stars,' MONDAY, OCTOBER 7 (8:00-10:01 p.m., ET). (Photo by Adam Taylor/ABC via Getty Images)
VALERIE HARPER, TRISTAN MACMANUS
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 13: Valerie Harper attends the American Lung Association's LUNG FORCE national media kickoff event at Houston Hall on May 13, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for American Lung Association)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 07: Valerie Harper attends the AARP's 2nd Annual Movies For Grownups Film Showcase - 'Banner On The Moon' at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live on November 7, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Araya Diaz/WireImage)
THE CHEW - Valerie Harper is the guest on Friday, November 21, 2014. 'The Chew' airs MONDAY - FRIDAY (1-2pm, ET) on the ABC Television Network.
(Photo by Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 09: Actress Valerie Harper speaks onstage during The Survivor Mitzvah Project: A benefit for Holocaust survivors at Webster Hall on May 9, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for The Survivor Mitzvah Project)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 12: Valerie Harper steps out in New York City for the American Lung Association's LUNG FORCE as it launches its Share Your Voice initiative to raise awareness of the number one cancer killer of women, lung cancer, on May 12, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for American Lung Association)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 07: Valerie Harper;Carol Kane arrive at the ELLE Hosts Women In Comedy Event With July Cover Stars Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon And Kristen Wiig at HYDE Sunset: Kitchen + Cocktails on June 7, 2016 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 23: Valerie Harper attends the 12th annual La Femme International Film Festival closing ceremony at The Los Angeles Theatre Center on October 23, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 21: Actress Valerie Harper at The Hollywood Show held at Westin LAX Hotel on October 21, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)
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Once Rhoda ended in 1978, Harper went on to star in several TV movies before launching another sitcom, NBC's Valerie, in 1986. By the end of the second season, the comedy—in which Harper starred as a happily-married mom of three boys—was becoming a hit and Harper demanded a salary bump. But the network and Lorimar, the production company, balked, and after a bitter public battle, Harper was fired from the show. Her character was killed off, and Sandy Duncan was brought in to play the boys' aunt and new caretaker. (The show was later renamed twice: first Valerie's Family and then The Hogan Family.) The following year Harper successfully sued Lorimar for wrongful termination and won $1.4 million and a share of the series' profits.
Asked in a 2007 interview what she'd want on her tombstone, Harper answered, "'She was in the game.' I love to inspire people. I’d like to be remembered in a way that they would take action. I love to get people moving [to better themselves]. I’d like to be remembered for energy. Pulling people on the dance floor!”
Harper, who divorced first husband Schaal in 1978, married producer and actor Cacciotti in 1987. She is also survived by daughter Cristina Cacciotti, and a stepdaughter, actress Wendy Schaal.