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Valerie Harper, Rhoda on ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ Dies at 80

Valerie Harper, who played Rhoda Morgenstern, the brash, Bronx-accented sidekick to the Mary Richards character on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and went on to topline spinoff “Rhoda,” died Friday after being diagnosed with lung and brain cancer in 2009. She was 80.

Her daughter Christina tweeted the news.

ABC7 first announced the news.

On July 23, her husband Tony Cacciotti posted a message saying he would be “where I belong right beside her” for as long as possible.

Harper won four Emmys for the two hugely popular 1970s shows and performed on the stage and bigscreen as well on appearing on dozens of other series. Through she was diagnosed with cancer 10 years ago, she continued working and competed on “Dancing With the Stars” in late 2013.

While the chirpy Mary Richards was happily single, a rarity for the era, the Rhoda character was her opposite, an outspoken, wisecracking woman in her thirties who seemed desperate to find a husband. Her fans were surprised to find out that Harper wasn’t Jewish in real life.

“I can’t tell you enough how much fun it was and how supported I felt,” she told the Television Academy Foundation in 2009.

Though her friendship with the Mary Richards character was a chief appeal of the show, her character was so popular that the network spun off “Rhoda,” which ran from 1974-78 on CBS.

In the spinoff, Morgenstern returned to New York to work as a window dresser with a more self-confident persona. Morgenstern’s whiny sister Brenda was played by Julie Kavner, and her husband for part of the series was played by David Groh. Harper’s role as Morgenstern garnered supporting actress Emmys in 1971, ’72 and ’73 and an Emmy nom in ’74.

In an echo of many women’s lives during the 1970s, Rhoda was bored by the life of a housewife when she was first married. She started her own business decorating store windows and eventually split up with her husband, finishing out the show as a divorcée who frequented singles bars.

“Even with all the feminism we had gone through, being married was equated with success,” she told the TV Academy.

Born in Suffern, N.Y., Harper attended Gotham’s Young Professionals School in high school and studied ballet. She started in show business as a dancer/chorus girl on Broadway in 1959 in “Li’l Abner,” and went on to perform in Broadway shows such as “Wildcat” and “Take Me Along” and at Radio City Music Hall.

Her roommate, actress Arlene Golonka, introduced her to the Second City improv theater, where she met performer Dick Schaal, whom she married in 1965. She toured with Second City and moved to Hollywood, where she was called to audition for the part of Rhoda Morgenstern on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

In 1986 Harper starred in the NBC series “Valerie,” though she left after a salary dispute at the end of the second season. The series continued without her, with several name changes, and she won a $1.4 million judgment against Lorimar and 12.5% of the profits.

She went on to guest on familiar series such as “The Love Boat,” “Melrose Place,” “That ’70s Show,”  “Sex and the City,” “Hot in Cleveland“ and “Desperate Housewives.”

Her feature roles included 1974’s “Freebie and the Bean,” “Blame It on Rio,” “The Last Married Couple in America” and, more recently, horror pic “Shiver.”

Harper ran for president of the Screen Actors Guild in 2001, losing to Melissa Gilbert. Later in her career, she returned to the stage, taking on roles such as Golda Meir and Tallulah Bankhead, winning a Tony for the latter role in “Looped” in 2010.

Her memoir “I, Rhoda,” was released in January 2013. In it she quoted her friend Nicole Barth on the three main female characters in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”:  “Mary is who you wish you were. Rhoda is who you probably are. And Phyllis is who’ll you’re afraid you’ll become.”

A vocal supporter of the women’s movement, she campaigned to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed.

After divorcing Schaal, Harper married Cacciotti, with whom she adopted a daughter, Christina.

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