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AARP The Magazine

Valerie Harper: Fearless, Funny and Footloose

Battling incurable lung cancer, the celebrated TV star proves, with grace and humor, that each day is worth living to the fullest

Valerie Harper (CBS via Getty Images)

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" spinoff, "Rhoda," ran on CBS from 1974 to 1978. The character's signature 
head scarf was Valerie Harper’s idea. — CBS/Getty

Harper has always displayed a joie de vivre that audiences — and intimates — love.

"Valerie has the best attitude in the world," says her former costar and good friend Betty White. "She's so open about everything — it's not like she's trying to paint a false picture. She's kept her sense of humor and balance. My beloved husband Allen Ludden [who died from stomach cancer in 1981] had that same attitude, and I swear it added a year we wouldn't have had."

Still, Harper admits to having low moments. "There are times when I cry. I'll sit in the chair and feel the depression, let it seethe. Then it starts to go away, and I find myself laughing, saying, 'Well, that was dramatic.' " A self-described agnostic, she attributes her ability to cope largely to est (Erhard Seminars Training), which she received in the 1970s from human-potential-movement proponent Werner Erhard.

"Est taught me that you should live in the joy of life, not worrying about the future," says Harper. "And it taught me that I am part of everything. As physics has proven, we're ultimately particulate matter, which means we are all one. That's why racial and gender bias is so ridiculous."

An activist for civil rights, women's rights and the underprivileged, Harper is still fighting for causes she cares about.

"There's such a humanity about Val," says the prolific television director Jay Sandrich, who cast Harper as Rhoda. Since the late 1970s, Harper has served actively as a representative of the Hunger Project, which empowers rural women in Africa, Asia and Latin America to become self-reliant. This year friends from the project raised $200,000 in seed money to launch an auxiliary nonprofit, the Valerie Harper Women Leaders Fund, which will support potential female leaders in the developing world.

See also: 16 new must-see TV shows premiering in fall 2013

"I've been given a memorial while I'm still here!" Harper exclaims delightedly.

She and Cacciotti are also eager to advocate for more research into lung cancer. "People think lung cancer is all about smoking," says Harper, "when more than 50 percent of the new cases are found in nonsmokers or people who quit smoking years ago." They also want people to understand the importance of communicating life-and-death wishes with family members before it's too late.

"Most people don't do it because they think it's never gonna happen to them," says Cacciotti, "or that by talking about death you speed up the process."

As the couple sit next to each other in their living room, Harper grasps her husband's hand and says, "Tony, he's been great. He's faced major demons on this, where I haven't. Tony's courage and stamina — oh my God!"

"I'm trying to fool myself into accepting this," responds Cacciotti, his dark, tired eyes filling with tears. "But it's like a time bomb. At night when she's sleeping, I'm on the lookout, watching her breathe. Valerie is just my best buddy in my whole life."

"Honey, the doctors are happy, right?" Harper offers, attempting to lighten the mood. "They say I'm a strong girl. We'll manage this and eke out some more time." In fact, Harper recently accepted a role in a cable-TV movie and has signed on to compete on the new season of Dancing With the Stars.

"Anything could happen in the next six months," says Cacciotti. "There could be a breakthrough in treatment."

"Look, I was 73 when I got this news," says Harper. "Not 43. Not 28 with little children. I don't want to leave my daughter or this doll of a husband. But I have to be realistic. I've had a lot of great stuff — spectacular stuff — happen to me. I've got to not be a pig about life."

She tosses her head back and laughs.

Meg Grant is West Coast Editor for AARP The Magazine.

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