Alert
Close

Take AARP’s Smart Driver course and you could save money on your car insurance. Learn more

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 is sitting on a rose-colored sofa in the living room of her Spanish-style Santa Monica home, her life reflected in the things that surround her. On one wall hangs a modern, colorful painting of her TV alter ego, Rhoda Morgenstern, in trademark '70s head scarf, and there are photos on every shelf of her husband, daughter and five stepchildren. A dining table is piled high with letters and gifts from admirers — flowers, a prayer shawl, a set of rosary beads.

Valerie Harper (Jeff Lipsky)

Valerie Harper says her life has not changed dramatically since her diagnosis: "I've come to terms with it." — Jeff Lipsky

Sign up for the AARP Leisure Newsletter — and get movie reviews, great games and more delivered to you every month

In that familiar, full-throated voice we remember from her role as Mary Tyler Moore's on-screen BFF, the 74-year-old four-time Emmy-winning actress says, "I have been so touched by the outpouring of love and support and suggestions."

Recalling how in January she was diagnosed with terminal metastatic lung cancer, she admits to having been initially terried. "I'd wake up every morning with the feeling of a hand clutching my throat," she says. "I'd think, 'God, I have cancer. I won't be around to see my daughter get married.'"



Harper quickly realized that she and her husband of 26 years, Tony Cacciotti, 74, needed to get their affairs in order. "Tony said he didn't want to discuss it," says Harper. The son of Italian immigrants, Cacciotti had as a child seen too many deceased relatives, including his own teenage brother, displayed in caskets in the family living room during wakes that lasted as long as three days. "He has a whole phobia about the coffin and death," Harper explains. "He doesn't go to funerals."

Drawing on her emotional reserves, and philosophies she adopted earlier in life, Harper not only came to terms with her diagnosis but also helped her husband with his fears. "Valerie is a realist," says Cacciotti. "And she worries more about others than herself. She worries about what's going to happen to us when she's gone."

After some coaxing, Cacciotti agreed to see a lawyer to draft wills and health care directives, something the couple admit they should have done years ago. But when Harper told her husband that she wanted to be cremated, he dug in once again.

"The body is just a rooming house," Harper says. "I don't care. I said, 'Go cheap. Go to the Neptune Society [a low-cost national provider of cremation services].' A friend went that way, and it was fabulous. You go out in Santa Monica Bay, cast flowers, then the ashes. Something even came in the mail offering a $120 discount. I said, 'Tony, we can get it if we order by Thursday.' I was trying to make him laugh, but he didn't think it was funny."

Next page: An unwelcomed diagnosis. »

Topic Alerts

You can get weekly email alerts on the topics below. Just click “Follow.”

Manage Alerts

Processing

Please wait...

progress bar, please wait

Tell Us WhatYou Think

Please leave your comment below.

Discounts & Benefits

From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.

Cirque Du Soleil

Members save up to 20% on live Cirque du Soleil shows with their AARP membership card.

Regal Cinemas movie theater

Members pay $8 for Regal ePremiere tickets purchased online. Conditions apply.

Movies Unlimited

Members save 10% on purchases of DVDs & Blu-ray discs from Movies Unlimited.

Member Benefits

Join or renew today! Members receive exclusive member benefits & affect social change.