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Born in Suffern, N.Y., in 1939, Valerie Harper made her Broadway debut in the chorus of 1959's Take Me Along. (She's the smiling woman behind star Walter Pidgeon.) Among her other early parts was a chorus stint in Wildcat, the musical that featured Lucille Ball’s only lead role on Broadway.
Harper (far left) became a star playing Rhoda Morgenstern — Mary Richards’ single, sassy, smart-talking, New York–bred neighbor. Over five years on the seminal ’70s sitcom, Harper won three Emmys for outstanding supporting actress.
Harper is best known for TV, but she has dabbled in film, including a role in this 1974 buddy-cop comedy starring James Caan and Alan Arkin. Playing Arkin’s wife, Harper earned a Golden Globe nomination as New Star of the Year-Actress.
In her 1974 MTM spinoff, famously single Rhoda moves back to New York City, settles down and marries Joe Gerard (David Groh). Rhoda was a smash, instantly topping the ratings. Its wedding episode drew more than 50 million TV viewers.
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The plaudits kept coming: In 1975, Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Theatricals named Harper its Woman of the Year. But Rhoda’s post-wedding ratings fell and the show was canceled in 1978 — a year after the MTM finale reunited the two best friends (with Cloris Leachman, far left) one last time.
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Harper earned her sixth Golden Globe nomination, as best supporting actress, in the 1979 movie adaptation of Neil Simon’s play about a man's attempts to navigate the dating scene after his wife’s death.
Harper’s 1986 return to TV, as mother to a young Jason Bateman (near left), soured quickly. She fought bitterly with producers over her salary, then left the show after Season 2, replaced by Sandy Duncan. The renamed Hogan Family ran for four more seasons.
NBC/NBCU Photo Bank
Even as the Valerie dispute roiled her professional life, Harper’s home front was blossoming. In 1987 she married fitness trainer and longtime boyfriend Tony Cacciotti. The couple adopted a daughter, Cristina, that same year.
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2010 found Harper back where it all began: On Broadway, where she starred as Tallulah Bankhead in Looped. Harper's portrayal of the boozy legend of screen and stage earned her a Tony nomination for best actress in a play.
In March 2013, Harper revealed she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Early treatment has been so promising she agreed to compete on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. Judge Bruno Tonioli’s take on her debut dance with Tristan MacManus (pictured): “You are an inspiration.”
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