Best known for her role as Rhoda Morgenstern on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spinoff “Rhoda” in the 1970s, Harper was diagnosed with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare and incurable form of brain cancer, in January 2013.
“‘Incurable’ is such a concise word. I was terrified,” she said.
“Cancer makes real what we try to obscure from ourselves,” Harper added. “We spend our lifetimes thinking, ‘I’m never going to die.’ But cancer says, ‘Hey, not so fast.’”
At the time, doctors gave her just three months to live, but Harper 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 hospitalized before a July 2015 performance.
In November 2015, Harper made her first public appearance after that hospitalization 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 actor’s husband, Tony Cacciotti, said he had declined doctors’ recommendations to place Harper in hospice care, in a July 23 Facebook post.
“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,” Cacciotti 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, on Aug. 22, 1939, Harper 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, Harper 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 Moore reunited for the TV movie “Mary and Rhoda.”
Harper 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 Cacciotti and their daughter, Cristina.
Antonia Blumberg contributed to this report.
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