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Valerie Harper: A Fighter Who Left a Complex Hollywood Legacy

Valerie Harper was a fighter, and that may ultimately be her Hollywood legacy. That was true with her career, and also in her 10-year battle with lung cancer. Harper will forever be best known for playing Rhoda Morgenstern, her “Mary Tyler Moore Show” character that earned the actress four Emmys and was later spun off into an entirely separate series, “Rhoda.”

But just like Rhoda, the spunky, wise-cracking best friend of Moore’s Mary Richards, Harper didn’t back down from a fight. In Hollywood, Harper will perhaps be most remembered for standing her ground on the NBC sitcom “Valerie.”

The comedy, which starred Harper as the matriarch of a nuclear family living in Illinois, and grappling with typical life problems, launched in 1986 and eventually became a hit for the Peacock network. But that harmony was short-lived: Harper was fired from the show after its second season, however, following her salary dispute with Lorimar, the studio (which later merged with Warner Bros. TV) behind the show.

It was not a pretty fight. Lorimar claimed Harper walked and sued her for $70 million. But Harper, who was looking for a pay bump and more creative control, counter-sued for $180 million in damages.

It wasn’t the first time Harper had battled her bosses for recognition. In 1975, she reportedly refused to return to work on the second season of “Rhoda” until CBS bumped up her salary from $10,000 to $17,500 a week.

In the case of “Valerie,” a jury eventually found that she was wrongfully fired, and awarded her $1.4 million and 12.5 percent of the show’s profits. “Valerie” continued on as “Valerie’s Family,” and later, “The Hogan Family,” with Sandy Duncan replacing the actress as the show’s female lead.

Harper’s ultimate legacy, however, may be a bit more murky for the talent community. The case of Harper’s exit from “Valerie” also had a darker, long-lasting impact on the industry: It proved to executives that shows could indeed survive, and even thrive, despite the exit of its top star. That lesson proved handy for execs in following years on shows like “NYPD Blue,” when David Caruso left after one season; when “Two and a Half Men” had to adjust after Charlie Sheen was fired over his misconduct; and even up to the recent switch on “House of Cards” (as Kevin Spacey was fired due to sexual assault allegations).

Most recently, ABC kept “Roseanne” going as “The Conners” after Roseanne Barr was fired over racist comments on social media; just like Harper’s character on “Valerie,” Barr’s character was killed off and the remaining characters continued with a similar show under a new title.

As for Harper, the actress later took that fighting spirit to the Screen Actors Guild, where she ran for president in 2001 (although losing to Melissa Gilbert) and served on the Hollywood board of directors. In 2009, she was diagnosed with lung cancer — but rather than retreating from the limelight, Harper kept on working. She competed on “Dancing with the Stars,” guest starred on series such as “2 Broke Girls” and “Childrens Hospital” and continued her theater work. “I’m going to fight this,” Harper said in 2017. “I’m going to see a way.” Harper kept up her battle until Aug. 30, when the actress died at the age of 80.

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