Valerie Harper, Star Of The Mary Tyler Moore Show And Rhoda, Dies Aged 80

The Emmy-winning actor died after a long battle with cancer.

US sitcom legend Valerie Harper has died after a long battle with brain cancer, her family confirmed to ABC and CBS on Friday. She was 80.

Best known for her role as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff Rhoda in the 1970s, Valerie was diagnosed with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare and incurable form of brain cancer, in January 2013.

Valerie Harper pictured in 2015, two years after her diagnosis
Valerie Harper pictured in 2015, two years after her diagnosis
Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images

When the actor, who had battled lung cancer in 2009, learned of her terminal diagnosis, she told People magazine that the finality of it “hit me like a sledgehammer”.

“‘Incurable’ is such a concise word. I was terrified,” she said.

“Cancer makes real what we try to obscure from ourselves,” Valerie added. “We spend our lifetimes thinking, ‘I’m never going to die.’ But cancer says, ‘Hey, not so fast.’”

Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern in 'Rhoda', 1975. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern in 'Rhoda', 1975. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

At the time, doctors gave her just three months to live, but Valerie defied the odds. She continued to act in guest spots on television and competed on Dancing With the Stars. She even starred in the live musical Nice Work If You Can Get It, until she had to be hospitalised before a July 2015 performance.

In November 2015, Valerie made her first public appearance after that hospitalisation at the Glioblastoma Multiforme Heroes Awards, where she told Entertainment Tonight, “Listen, I was supposed to be dead in three months, maybe six, because of the kind of cancer I had. It’s a toughie.”

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" highlighted women's changing roles in the 1970s
"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" highlighted women's changing roles in the 1970s
CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

The actor’s husband, Tony Cacciotti, said he had declined doctors’ recommendations to place Valerie in hospice care, in a Facebook post last month.

“We will continue going forward as long as the powers above allow us, I will do my very best in making Val as comfortable as possible,” he wrote. “For those of you who have been in this position, you will totally understand that ‘it’s hard letting go.’ So as long as I’m able and capable, I’ll be where I belong right beside her.”

Born in Suffern, New York, in August 1939, Valerie got her start in show business dancing in the chorus on Broadway. After nabbing several small parts in the late ’50s and ’60s, Harper landed the iconic role of Mary Tyler Moore’s funny, earthy best friend in 1970.

She left the original series in 1974, but continued to play Rhoda ― a role that earned her four Emmys and one Golden Globe award ― on the spinoff series until 1978.

After that series wrapped, Valerie went on to act in several made-for-TV movies before starring in two season-long sitcoms, Valerie and City, in 1986 and 1990, respectively.

Over the years, she made notable guest appearances on Melrose Place, Sex And The City and That ’70s Show. In 2000, she and Mary Tyler Moore reunited for the TV movie Mary and Rhoda.

Valerie also continued to appear on stage, earning a Tony Award nomination for playing Tallulah Bankhead in “Looped” in 2010.

Her last on-screen role was in the short film My Mom and the Girl, which was released in October 2016.

Harper is survived by Tony and their daughter, Cristina.

Antonia Blumberg contributed to this report.

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