Monday, September 2, 2019

I Remember Valerie Harper

News that my friend Valerie Harper had died from cancer aged 80 was disturbing but not unexpected.
Harper was battling the strange illness of cancer of the membrane of the brain lining and had several reprieves when she was declared cancer free.
But it reminded me of the wonderful times I had interviewed her at ,length and the warmth and friendship she had always shown me.
Here are highlights of our conversations:
BAWDEN: Here we are at a 1980 dinner at the Century Plaza hotel and you're with your husband fitness expert Tony Cacciotti.  People forget youre an accomplished dramatic actress and the TV movie Shadow Box (1980) must be one of your personal favorites.
HARPER:: It was directed by Paul Newman and looked at thee couples copping with terminal cancer at a hospital retreat. Joanne Woodward and Chris Plummer were one couple, IOIOIOI and Sylvia Sidney were the second and Jimmy Broderick and I played the third. He was a marvellous dramatic actor  (and star of Family) and he succumbed shortly afterwards to cancer and he never told me about it. It must have been so hard for him to be playing sick and actually have cancer but denying it for fear of being fired.
BAWDEN: These opportunities come to you because of your fame as TV's Rhoda.
HAPER: I completely realize that. It's the power of TV. It washes away everything else you've ever done. It's scary but also challenging. I was an unknown before I joined the MTM stock company.
BAWDEN: So how were you hired?
HAPER: By a sage casting director Ethel Winant who had spotted me at Second City improv outings. She called me in. I read for various people with the intent of becoming an eccentric sidekick to Mary Tyler Moore in her new 1970 sitcom and I got it. I wanted to shed few pounds but I was told "Stay large. you can play off that." So I didn't lose weight until the break before the second season.
We already had filmed a batch before we came on the air. The front seats were filled with CBS executives and their wives and everything seemed to point rot a hit from the first taping.
We'd shoot one show at 7 and a second show at 9:30 and from the first episode nothing much was changed. The writers and producers headed by Jim Brooks wrote so well that we didn't have to change a comma. The audiences were enthusiastic but they were invitees so one couldn't be quite sure.
BAWDEN: Remember your first lines?
HARPER: In the premiere episode I  flounce into Mary's apartment where she's unpacking and say "I have to lose 10 pounds by 8:30." And the audience screamed. I thought it was funny in rehearsal but not that funny.
HARPER: Tell me how the structure or hierarchy of the show worked.
'HARPER: Well, it was Mary's show but she never got tough with us on the set. I'm sure she had talks behind the scenes as to what she wanted to achieve. Mary Richards was a transitional figure. She was over 30 but she was unmarried and not divorced --the CBS censor said "No divorcee"! Mary just shrugged, she told me on her first (The Dick Van Dyke Show) the censor had initially balked her wearing  slacks so much.
BAWDEN: Did that make her TV's first feminist?
HAZRPER: Well, the character didn't want to marry at that stage in her life. She wanted a career. Whether or not any of the boyfriends slept over wasn't quite clear.
BAWDEN: How did the week progress?
HARPER: There was a table read on Mondays. Very few lines were cut. Something might be sharpened a bit. Then on Tuesday there was a dress rehearsal, that sort of thing. It became very leisurely with blocking starting on Wednesday and first rehearsals Thursday and we'd do the show on Friday. The success of MTM meant the company boughtt out the old  Republic studios and turned many of the stages into mini theatres for TV sitcoms.
BAWDEN: I remember one MTM party that took place for TV critics and the entire top floor of Chasen's was filled with a star at every take. I got Paul Sands from Friends And Lover, a rare MTM sitcom that didn't ,make it.
BAWDEN: I was listening in to the pre-dinner conversation at this gala and one of my fellow critics was pissed off you really weren't Jewish.
HARPER: I know! I told him it was great acting!I was born in a small town in upstate New York. I'm really not an urban creature at all. And by the way my mom isCanadian. born in Calgary. In fact we're thinking of getting her back there for the 50th anniversary of her graduation from the Calgary School of Nursing. I'm getting excited about that.
BAWDEN: What about your personal relationship with Mary Yyler Moore?
HARPER: What about it? She was my  boss, I'm the employee. Look, we're acting associates and friends. But there's a distancing around Mary. I'd never bother her with trivial matters.
BAWDEN: When they proposed a spin off what was your reaction?
HARPER: I was stunned. Why leave a surefire hit? But they kept pushing and finally in 1974 Rhoda came about and Mary even made an early appearance to help boost the show. You know Rhoda's wedding attracted a near record audiemce. But I was always leery, I thought she was funnier as a single. We ran four years and 110 episodes but spin offs are almost always less popular than the original.
CBS started us off Mondays at 9:30 hammock between Maude and Meduical Center and up against ABC football and NBC Monday night movies and it was a rough slot.
We barely survived--it was too late so CBS plopped us Mondays at 8 before Rhoda and All In The Family and we started to grow.
In 1977 we went Sundays at 8 after 60 Minutes and had high audiences. In 1978 we went on Saturday nights at 8 which was becoming the lowest rated night of the week and we died, just died there.
BAWDEN: But your wedding became a real TV event.
HARPER: I think it got something g like 50 million viewers.But people did not want to see Rhoda happily married. She lost her zing.So I gradually separated from Joe and finally got a divorce and all this was painful and not helpful. And I hated hurting David Groh who is such an accomplished actor. We brought back Nancy Walker as my ma but laughs were infrequent.  All those chefs at CBS had destroyed a sound comedic character and I was relieved it got cancelled. Mary had already closed down her show in 1977.
BAWDEN: But Mary and Rhoda were reunited?
HARPER: In 1980 we joined up for a reunion thingy which was an adult TV movie and not comedy. Not a great idea. People did not like these two as serious. It was a stark reminder they were getting old as we were. It was a bad idea I felt from the first day  of filming. Nobody cares to remember that dud but you.
BAWDEN: Tell me about Valerie.
HARPER:  Here's your scoop for tomorrow's edition. I'm not coming back. I'm not playing second fiddle to a bunch of teenaged boys. No, I won't do it. NBC put us up against the second half hour of Murder She Wrote. So we're a semi-success. But not with this girl. Not now. Not any time.
NOTE: As it turned out Harper came back for one episode and then walked again to be replaced by Sandy Duncan as a new character and with a new title Valerie Family.
Then in 1990 my phone at The Toronto Star was ringing an d Valerie Harper was cooing:"I'm back."
HARPER: It's called The Office and we're on CBS directly opposite guess what show --Valerie's Family. And on my show I have a grand gal LuAnne Ponce and she's the sister of Danny Ponce who I worked with before leaving. So the talks over breakfast in that house must be very interesting. I'm the secretary for packaging company and I've been there for 19 yearns Dakin Matthews is my inept boss and comedy ensues.
But both series crashed in the ratings fairly quickly.
I had one more phone call when Harper guested on Hot In Cleveland in 1990
HARPER: It's as close to a reunion show as we'll ever get, Mary is battling illness but she's still super disciplined. It was so wonderful just to see her and Cloris and Betty White and the whole thing was shot very quickly because we're veterans after all.
My disease is in remission. I'm a fighter first and foremost. In 2010 I played Talullah Bankhead on Broadway. I've done Dancing With The Stars --I started as a dancer. I'm grateful for the friends I've made and the TV shows I've been in. Rhoda I think of as my best friend, she's helped me get a slice of the acting pie and I ran with it and I'm still running as fast as I can.

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