We were sorry to hear that actress Valerie Harper, who portrayed Rhoda Morganstern on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” has been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer.
Rhoda was the brash-but-amiable sidekick to the earnest and attractive Mary Richards, played by Moore. Mary’s friend and landlord, Phyllis Lindstrom, played by Cloris Leachman, was self-important and self-absorbed, a kind of caricature of the self-esteem movement just starting to gain steam during the show’s heyday in the 1970s.
According to one popular formulation, Mary was the loveably perfect woman that every woman wanted to be, while Phyllis was the woman that women feared becoming. Rhoda, on the other hand, seemed the kind of woman that most women are. She had personal flaws, felt fatter than the ideal, but was, at heart, a loyal friend, smartly resourceful, a fun date.
We were always amused by the way that the makers of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” tried to mute Harper’s beauty so that she wouldn’t upstage Moore’s. Harper would wear dumpier clothes and less-flattering make-up to advance her character’s ugly-duckling story line, in much the same way that Vivian Vance, as the girlfriend sidekick on “I Love Lucy,” was made to seem homely, although not persuasively so.
No one could really make Rhoda anything less than what she was — a real looker just waiting for someone to notice her. That promise was fulfilled in a memorable episode in which Rhoda acted against type, actually winning a beauty contest. The news of Harper’s illness brought back many happy memories of Rhoda Morganstern — and best wishes for Harper, who has expressed acceptance and serenity in the face of her diagnosis.