About two weeks ago, I was in Los Angeles helping my friend on a weekend film shoot he was producing. The second night of the shoot wasn’t as demanding for me as the first, so I sat on set writing a piece based on an idea that came to me the night before. I was going to write and perform a storytelling piece about television moms and how they related to me as a child in the 1980s-1990s.
The child of working parents, in those days I would often find myself diving into a world of sitcom families who, despite their pitfalls and the obstacles that leant themselves to more colorful story lines, always seemed to hold it together and have it all. This was an easy piece to script for someone who lives in a pop culture time machine. I’d focus on the maternal vibes I received from three women who dominated the screen when I was a kid. Meredith Baxter from Family Ties, Dixie Carter from Designing Women, and the one I would base the entire piece off of: Valerie Harper as Valerie Hogan in Valerie.
In short: I live for Valerie Harper. And though she is more renowned and loved as Mary Tyler Moore’s blunt bohemian neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern, the first time I ever laid eyes on her was when I caught Valerie (later The Hogan Family) and made an instant connection that Mrs. Hogan was one hell of a mom.
When I heard that Valerie Harper had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, I got the same sinking feeling I experienced when I found out my own mom Virginia had cancer. Suddenly, a piece of innocence was gone from life and things became much less comfortable.
But in my Valerie Harper fandom, I have learned a lot about the woman who put on a head scarf in the early 1970s and changed television history. Her illness and facing the inevitable circle of life saddens many of those who watched her on TV or caught her on stage in the past several decades. Reading her book I, Rhoda, you can see that Valerie isn’t like a lot of other celebrities. Her humility and openness jumps off the page and shows nothing but an appreciation of a phenomenal career that was half determined talent and the other half fortunate happenstance.
Valerie Harper has taught the world many things, but there are three that stand out.
1. Be gracious
Reading her memoir was almost like following her on a trip through a wild life. And for every person she encountered along the way, she always had a nice thing to say. And the stories match up. Read anything on her, and you will see that there isn’t a bad word about Valerie to be heard. When I became a performer myself, I quickly realized that you need to be thankful and kind to all those around you. And it’s a lesson anyone can translate into any career or life experience. Treat others with gratitude. The end.
Even when a battle and subsequent lawsuit surrounding the TV show Valerie resulted in Sandy Duncan replacing Harper in an eleventh hour plot change, the reputation of Ms. Harper remained intact. In fact, her story shaped entertainment law and served as the cornerstone case for the rights of creative people working in television. After all of that, her memoir hardly said a bad word about anyone involved and instead simply brought light to a bad situation.
2. Go ahead, wear that wedding dress on the subway
Because Rhoda Morgenstern’s ride never came and she had to hop on the train uptown (or down?) to her own wedding in a big white dress, standards for riding the New York City subway were drastically relaxed. Granted, I wasn’t alive to know what riding the 6 train was like before the mid-1970s. But in the past few years as a New Yorker, I have hopped on the subway in drag, in costume, on crutches, carrying furniture, artwork, or luggage to and from LaGuardia. And it’s all totally acceptable (in my mind) because once upon a time in TV land, a girl in a wedding dress was hoofing it around New York City to get to her own nuptials before the guests gave up on her.
3. Live your life, even when you realize it’s wrapping up
It’s almost trite to say it, but when you are faced with illness and you keep living and enjoying life, there is something to be said for the outlook you have. Sharing that with the world can impart hope on others and teach people something. In short: it’s not all about you, even though it really is totally about you.
Valerie’s open enough to let the public in for all the good, bad and ugly. But this is far different than the culture of reality TV that has saturated our lives in the past decade. It’s a dignified ending to the story of a life well lived. I felt that way about my own mom, who died at the age of 69. I’d imagine we’d all like to live to be rather old, but since there are no guarantees on the matter, it’s up to us to fill in the space between now and the inevitable with passion and experience.
At the risk of sounding like a gushy and ridiculous fan, I will say this much. Valerie Harper has brought me great comfort over the years, and she has set a phenomenal example for how to live, appreciate and enjoy the things life can offer when you just show up and do your best.
So I just want to say thanks, Valerie. Coming both from the little blonde kid who thought you were the perfect mom and from the borderline campy (but some think charming and witty?) 30 year-old guy who wrote about you and still thinks you’re one of a kind.
You’ve done a lot of good in this world and it’s a better place for having known you.