Valerie Harper, who played one of TV’s most popular and enduring characters, Rhoda Morgenstern, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the spin-off series Rhoda, died Friday at 80 of an undisclosed cause. Her family confirmed her death to ABC 7 News.
Harper was diagnosed with an incurable form of brain cancer in 2013. The actress had successfully beat lung cancer in 2009, but doctors told her just four years later that she had leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a disease that accounts for less than 2 percent of all cancers. That same year, Harper posed for a PEOPLE cover story under a headline that read, “Brave Goodbye.”
And yet she defied the odds. Though Harper would remind people that she wasn’t in remission, she would add, “It’s not making progress, I am.” And she would end up outliving her costar and “soulmate” Mary Tyler Moore, who died in January 2017 at the age of 80.
In July, a GoFundMe page was set up for Harper by a family friend to help pay for the costs of the TV icon’s treatment.
Born in Suffern, N.Y., Harper began her career as a Broadway dancer and chorus girl, appearing in productions of Lil Abner and Something Different. After heading west in 1970, she was spotted by a casting agent who put her up for the part of Rhoda, Mary’s free-spirited upstairs neighbor on the CBS comedy. Four years later, she left the sitcom to headline one of her own, called Rhoda, which lasted through 1978. It was a successful run for Harper: She would win four Emmys and a Golden Globe for playing the jovial character.
In 1986, Harper attempted a sitcom comeback with the NBC series Valerie, but was removed from the title role after the second season because of a contract dispute with Lorimar-Telepictures. She was memorably replaced by Sandy Duncan and the show was renamed The Hogan Family — and Lorimar ended up having to pay Harper damages for wrongful termination.
After she was given a terminal diagnosis in 2013, Harper was cast in the 17th season of Dancing With the Stars and partnered with Tristan MacManus. She was eliminated in week 4.
Two years later, reports surfaced that Harper was in a coma after collapsing backstage during a performance of Nice Work If You Can Get It. She wrote a personal note on Facebook to fans about her health: “I am happy to report that I am not, nor have I been, in a coma,” she wrote. “As anyone who has taken strong medication knows, it doesn’t always agree with you, even with me as this experience proves. I am confronting these hurdles with my usual enthusiasm and love of life.”
In recent years, Harper provided her voice talents to numerous parts on The Simpsons and American Dad.
Harper’s survivors include her second husband, Tony Cacciotti, and their daughter, Cristina Cacciotti.