Opening up about the first time she “met” Moore, who died in January 2017, Harper, who died on Friday at the age of 80, previously told PEOPLE that she had been an admirer of the actress for years.
“I met her on TV, and saying, ‘I wish I was Mary Tyler Moore to Dick Van Dyke,’ ” Harper told PEOPLE in 2015. “She was classy — a very classy lady and a brunette, which I liked.”
Before getting her own sitcom, Moore was one of the stars of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran from 1961-66.
“I used to come home from junior high or high school and watched her in the afternoon,” Harper said. “And then we met when they called me and said, ‘We think you might be good as her friend playing Rhoda,’ and I said, ‘Oh my God that’s great.’ ”
Fortunately, the audition “went really well.”
“The writers liked it and [director] Jim Brooks said we’d love to see you with Mary so please come back next week so we can see how you guys interchange and I said of course and that’s what I did,” Harper recalled.
Moore was also incredibly supportive when it came time for Harper to break off on her own for the 1974–78 spinoff, Rhoda.
“I didn’t know what spinoff meant,” Harper previously told PEOPLE, explaining that she had to be told she wasn’t “being fired” and that they “were trying to make another show around you.”
“But I didn’t want to leave Mary and Gavin [MacLeod] and Cloris [Leachman] — and thought geez what if it fails,” she said. “And Mary said, if that happens, you’ll fail in NY and come back to Minneapolis!”
Over the years, they continued to stay in touch, with the actresses making a point of supporting one another.
“She moved to the east coast and was doing Broadway and then when I was doing Rhoda we would go and do each other’s shows. We stayed in touch” Harper said of Moore. “She was really a fun, good person to work with.”
Years later, Harper and Moore returned to their iconic characters for a 2000 reunion, a made-for-television film called Mary and Rhoda.
“We had such a good time. That was really fun,” Harper recalled. “We both had daughters and mine was a doctor, a brain, and hers turned out to be this really raunchy singer, lots of tattoos, earrings and things, and it was so funny that she had a Rhoda and I had a Mary.”
As for the reunion itself, Harper said it was a blast to get to work with Moore again.
“That whole set was really copacetic. There weren’t any bad things, it was all fun. We laughed and we worked very hard. That was the best part of it,” she said. “We had a great time with each other working and laughing.”
Harper added, “We’d seen each other over the years, when I was in New York we’d have lunch. She was incredibly generous. She’s really a great person.”
During the interview, Harper, who battled a number of health issues over the years, including leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, lung cancer and brain cancer, also opened up about continuing to work through her illnesses.
“You know what darling, we’re all going to die. Every single one of us. Really we are,” she said. “So if you can kind of cut that out of your mind…when it comes, it comes.”
Harper continued, “But for now I’m alive and I’ll do whatever I can do. Why not just do it! And that’s been my approach to life.”
Harper died on Friday at 10:06 a.m., following a lengthy battle with cancer. Her cause of death was not immediately known.
My dad has asked me to pass on this message: “My beautiful caring wife of nearly 40 years has passed away at 10:06am, after years of fighting cancer.— Cris (@cristicacci) August 30, 2019
She will never, ever be forgotten. Rest In Peace, mia Valeria. -Anthony.”
The actress was diagnosed with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis in 2013, just four years after she beat lung cancer. The condition occurs when cancer cells spread into the fluid-filled membrane surrounding the brain, known as the meninges.
At the time of her diagnosis, doctors told her she only had three months to live, but Harper beat the odds and continued to live well beyond their expectations by six years.