A Talk With Valerie Harper, Living 'Here And Now'

In our first interview in the 1990s, Valerie Harper described the character of Rhoda Morgenstern —sidekick on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and star of the spinoff "Rhoda" — as "the brash New Yorker who says the unsayable."

The same can be said of Harper, but she adds a gentle and empathetic grace in her truth telling.

In her memoir, "I, Rhoda," published in January by Gallery Books, she went public about her lung cancer in 2009 and how she survived it. She said she wanted others to learn from her experience.

On Wednesday, the actress revealed she has terminal brain cancer. The news was shatteringly sad for the many who love and respect her work over a long career on stage, film and TV. But in its direct simple honesty, it was so like Valerie Harper.

Something Amiss

Harper, 73, was taken to the hospital on Jan. 11 when she started garbling words and spacing out during rehearsals in New York for the upcoming tour of "Looped," where she was re-creating her Tony Award-nominated performance as legendary actress — and lush — Tallaulah Bankhead. The "Looped" team refers to that time as Black Friday.

I interviewed her a few hours earlier. We talked many times over the past 16 years and each time she made me feel like an old friend. On this morning she looked stylishly casual but she was upset that she had been a bit late for the meeting. During our talk she seemed a bit unfocused and had trouble completing sentences as other thoughts crossed her mind. Nothing too unusual for the high energy actress and I brushed it off as the effects of a busy schedule — juggling book and theater duties — or perhaps it was just the enthusiasm of a pal you hadn't seen in ages — with so many things to share you don't know where to begin or end.

The setting on that cold, gray morning was a swank midtown hotel. She wasn't staying there but we liked the atmosphere for our talk, which was to be about her book and the tour of "Looped," which would be launched at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford later that month.

In the memoir she describes how in 2009, prior to the pre-Broadway opening of "Looped" at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., she learned she had a cancerous tumor on her lung. She underwent thoracoscopic surgery, resulting in the removal of having one of the lobes in her the right lung, which got rid of the cancer.

"It was awful," she says of that period. In the play which is largely comic, Harper, who never smoked in real-life, "fake smokes" and she felt if audiences knew of her illness, even of her recent recovery, it would take away from the response to the production. She didn't want anything to jeopardize the production.

"But we hadn't told the boys," she says referring to playwright Matthew Lombardo and director Rob Ruggiero. "Matthew is extremely emotional. I did tell Rob after the surgery, though."

Ruggiero, after all could relate, having gone through his own cancer challenge with surgery and chemotherapy sessions in 2007 which led to his recovery.

But for Harper, there was no need for chemo or radiation therapies; orthoscopic surgery removed it.  "It's gone. It was St. Patrick's Day [2009] when I heard the good news. There was something we could do, so hope springs eternal.

"I love my doctor so much and he said more women who don't smoke are dying of lung cancer, of breast cancer. I hope this will help in encouraging women to get tested. If found early enough, they can go in with a needle and remove it. Women should know that. Now I go every six months for an MRI."

Back To The Stage

After the D.C. run and with Harper cancer-free, the creative team came to Hartford to work on the script and rehearse for a Broadway production.

Hartford is familiar turf for Harper. In 1997, she premiered "The Dragon and the Pearl," her solo show about the life of writer Pearl S. Buck at TheaterWorks, which is the artistic home for Ruggiero. Lombardo, who grew up in Wethersfield, had his play "Tea at Five," a solo show about Katharine Hepburn, premiere at Hartford Stage in 2001. (Lombardo told me that many people advised Harper not to do "Looped" with him because of his history with drugs. He said Harper told him, "that we are all allowed to make mistakes in life and move forward" and signed on for the show — which would be the first Broadway credit for Lombardo and Ruggiero.)

Connecticut is familiar to Harper because she also played the Bushnell in tours of the Broadway comedy "Tales of the Allergist's Wife" — she also played the role at New Haven's Shubert Theater — and "Golda's Balcony," a solo show where she played former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. The actress is not Jewish but she once proudly told me that "some Jews tell me I have a neshamah, which means 'a Jewish soul.' "

"Looped" opened on Broadway in the spring of 2010 and through the production was short-lived, playing just 33 performances, her work was widely praised.

She went home to Santa Monica but she was urged by the show's publicist to return to New York in May in case she was nominated for a Tony Award so she could participate in the festivities immediately following the announcement of nominees. Harper did and she laughingly recalls being in her hotel room and learning at the last minute that the televised announcement would be bumped because of breaking news. She and husband of 25 years, Tony Cacciotti, rushed to the Internet where she learned in a tiny news crawl that she was indeed nominated. They were ecstatic, she says."And when we called Rob he cried because he was so happy. But we all win when someone is nominated. That's what it's like in the theater community."