Friday, February 7, 2014

I, Rhoda by Valerie Harper

Valerie Harper. I, Rhoda. New York: Gallery Books, 2013.

The author had the role of Rhoda Morgenstein from 1970 to 1987, first on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” as Mary’s sidekick and then as the lead on the spin-off series “Rhoda”.

Harper knew from age six she wanted to be a performer. She took dance classes, including ballet, tap, and tumbling. She attended the Quintanos School for Young Professionals, which was a school aimed at entertainment families, even though her family was not in the entertainment business, with classmates such as Sal Mineo, Carol Lynley, and Tuesday Weld. At the same time, she studied at the Ballet Arts.

Harper began studying acting under John Cassavetes yet found it confused and left after two weeks.

Harper’s first paid job was for six weeks at Radio City Music Hall with the 36 member Cores de Ballet. She performed four times a day. The position required learning new dance numbers whenever the accompanying movie being shown changed. She found Radio CIty Music Hall backstage had dormitories with beds, showers, and a large cafeteria. She enjoyed the experience.

Her first film was dancing in “Rock, Rock, Rock”  which starred her classmate Tuesday Weld.

Her first regular job dancing was in the Michael Kidd Broadway production of “Li’l Abner”. She found the cast friendly and not backstabbing, which was the opposite of a common myth about fellow actors. She received $75 a week for eight shows per week. The show laster six months. After that, Harper went with the show where it played in Las Vegas for two months.

Harper gained weight and took diet shots to lose the weight. She got hepatitis from the shot. She had to leave as a cast member on Michael Kidd’s next play “Destiny Rides Again”.

Harper was cast in the movie “Li’l Abner”. Doing this caused he to gain weight again.

Harper than was in the Broadway play “Take Me Along” with Jackie Gleason. Gleason at times drank a lot, het his performances were always strong. Once, a man in the audience threatened to jump from an opera box seat in mid-performance. Jackie Gleason stopped him by yelling to him “Hold it right there” and then spoke to him long enough for security to reach him and pull him to safety. Gleason then resume acting with “sorry, folks, everyone wants to get into the act.”

Harper participated in her first strike when Actors’ Equity struck for a high minim pay plus better conditions, including no concrete floor rehearsal studios. She watched Celeste Holme at a Guild meeting proclaim “We must calm down. We are not a union. We are a Guild” to which Shelley Winters responded “Celeste, sit down! You don’t know your ass from your elbow. These kids are dancing for eight hours a day and destroying their legs.”

One of her fellow actors in “Take Me Along”, Jim Cresson, recommended Harper consider acting. Harper decided to take acting lessons from Mary Tarcai. Tarcai had been blacklisted for refusing to name Communists. Harper found herself failing at her acting studies, to which Tarcai replied Good Fail here in the studio, not out there when you’re working on a role.”

Tarcai taught Harper that “Acting is not about you self-expressed. Its about you creating other people.”

Harper earned a living by also appearing at industrial/trade shows.

Harper appeared in the play Wildcat” with Lucille Ball.

Harper was in the play “Subways are for Sleeping” produced by David Merrick. Merrick realized that critical reviews were going poorly so he found seven people with the same names as critics and had them watch the play for free and then used their names and photographs in ads praising the show.

Harper next acted in summer stock in “Come Blow Your Horn”. Harper was then offered to dance in the next Michael Kidd show. She turned it down to pursue acting.

Harper worked in sketch comedy clubs such as the Bitter End with performers such as Linda Ronstadt and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Harper became active with the Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers. The group picketed the show “Subways are for Sleeping” that Harper was in. They were upset that Blacks were not cast in the roles of Grand Central Station porters, positions that in real life were held by Blacks. Harper joined in picketing her own show until it was time to report to prepare for the show,

Harper joined Seven Arts CORE which fought to integrate the mostly white entertainment industry. She volunteered in their office. General Motors agreed to hire Blacks in their industrial shows.

Haper was convinced to move to California. He got a role in the TV series “Mayberry R.F.D.”

Paul Sills, who created Second City, convinced Harper and her husband Dick Schaal to join in forming a group called Story Theater that included Mary Frann and Peter Bonerz.

Harper worked in a small Los Angeles theater. A casting agent tracked her down requesting she audition for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. She was hard to find as she did not have an agent. Harper viewed the callback as an experience to work on her nervousness while reading with an established star as Mary Tyler Moore. She did not think she had a chance at getting the role. She looked at Mary Tyler Moore and told her “Look at you, white pants without a long jacked to cover your behind.” The producers laughed as she had become the role of Rhoda. She got the part She received $700 a week. She continued working with the Story Theater.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” production team was “lighthearted yet professional”. There was lots of laughter as people set out to do serious comedy. This was the first TV show to focus on a woman’s career.

There was table reads and first blocking on Mondays. There were blockings on Tuesday while the writers, while watching the blockings, determined how the material was working. Some times an entire script would be rewritten for Wednesday.

Harper learned to hit her marks for camera shoots, which she had not done in theater. She learned that script revisions were not a sign she was doing bad work but that the writers were improving the script.

Thursdays were rehearsals.

The first pilot of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was redone and the redone pilot was bought by CBS.

Harper was often nervous before tapings, Mary Tyler Moore advised her to think of one scene at a time instead of fretting over the whole show.

Viewers identified with Rhoda’s issues of weight struggles and dieting. Rhoda was a foil to the eloquent Phyllis, portrayed by Cloris Leachman. The relationship between Rhoda and Phyllis was made complicated by having Phyllis’s daughter liking Rhoda.

Jay Sandrich observed that Harper increased awareness of feminism in America with her portrayal of Rhoda. The show present real adult characters in adult issues without resorting to caricatures. The show relied on intelligent humor.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” had seven female writers such as Linda Bloodworth-Thompson.

Harper won for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Rhoda. She began being recognized in public. She continued appearing on stage with “Story Theater” and went with the show when it went to Broadway. Linda Lavin replaced her when she returned to her TV work and then Harper resumed her role when her TV filming ended.

“The Mary  Tyler Moore Show” continued being successful by allowing the characters to change and grow. It was not the same type of jokes rehashed each week yet new issues and stories that were presented. New characters were introduced, as played by Betty White, John Amos, and Georgia Engel.

The show touched on issues yet only where relevant to the characters. As Harper put it, “The writers didn’t want to make statements. They wanted to reflect life.”

The woman who owned the house in Minneapolis used as the exterior where Mary’s character lived was upset with the notoriety and people disturbing her privacy. When the crew returned to film the outside of her house again, the woman covered her house in giant sheets reading “Impeach Nixon” so the house could not be filmed again.

Harper won for Best Supporting Actress a second time in a rare tie with Sally Struthers.

Harper received other work, appearing in several TV movies and then her first movie “Freebie and the Bean”.

Fred Silverman of CBS discussed spinning off Rhoda’s character onto her own show from the first season. After the fourth season, it was decided it should be done. Harper was uncertain about leaving a successful show. Mary Tyler Moore encouraged her to take her own show. Harper agreed to do it but only if she could return to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” if her show, “Rhoda” did not succeed.

The same writers on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” developed “Rhoda”. Julie Kavner,who lost an earlier audition to play Rhoda’s sister on an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was cast as Rhoda’s sister, While filming “Rhoda”, Harper realized how much about acting she had learned from Mary Tyler Moore.

On the eight episode, Rhoda’s character got married. It was viewed by 51 million, or half of all TV viewers.

Harper won the Best Actress Award.

During the second season, the writers began hitting writing blocks. Much of the past humor about Rhoda had centered around her being unlucky in love. Now that Rhoda was happily married, her past charm about unlucky was gone.It was hard for the writers to develop conflicts for Rhoda. The show began focusing more on the other characters. It was decide Rhoda and her husband would separate in the third season.New characters were introduced. Viewers seemed upset at the inability of the characters to reconcile. It was decided they should divorce. This was the first time network TV characters divorced. CBS supported the decision.

“Rhoda” had good producers. Charlotte Brown, who had been a writer on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, became the first female producer on a multi-camera TV series. Producers Dave Davis and Jim Brooks left “Rhoda” to create the successful TV series “Taxi.

During the fifth season of “Rhoda”, it changes it time slow six times. It lost viewers during these moves. The show was cancelled without airing four already shot episodes.

Harper remained politically active. She worked in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, which fell two states short from being enacted. She worked with the Hunger Project.

Harper switched to movie work.She appeared in the film “The Last Married Couple in America”, which was a personal irony as she had divorced before then. She then was in “Chapter Two” followed by “Blame It On Rio”..

Harper next was in a TV series “Valerie”. This was her first series working with different writers and producers. She did not feel her character was funny enough. She observed the live audience did not laugh as much and that the show relied on caned laughter. Her previous shows relied on connecting with live audiences, which they would translated well with the viewing audience.

Harper was on “Valerie” for two seasons. She had a difficult negotiation for the third season but reached an agreement. Then Lorimar, the production company, backed out of the deal, effectively firing Harper from her own show. Harper sued that she had been wrongly fired. She also sued that the name of the show not be kept “Valerie” without her.

While Lorimar proclaimed Harper was unprofessional, her network NBC hired her for a TV movie. Harper dropped her suit against NBC as NBC found her employable.

Harper won her lawsuit against Lorimar. The court decided she had been wrongly terminated. She won a “substantial” settlement and was to receive participation in future syndication.

Harper next starred in the CBS series “City”. It began in the top ten in ratings yet slipped and was not renewed after 13 episodes.

Harper and Mary Tyler Moore filmed a TV movie “Mary and Rhoda” which reunited the two characters. It was meant to also serve as a pilot in hopes of becoming a series. It was not picked up as a series.

Harper learned she has incurable cancer.She writes “I am happy. I am at peace. I am filled with love.”

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