Valerie Harper: A Fan's Open Letter
Click Link Below Picture to View CBS Interview 3/11/2013
Update: June, 2017 I wrote this article several years ago and Ms Harper's courage is still inspiring to this day. While we never know a celebrity on a personal level, it is possible for us to detect from words and actions the givers of this world and Valerie Harper is truly a person who belongs in that heroic category of "Givers".
Dear Valerie Harper,
I woke up this morning with your image and voice in my head. I had been viewing your website and videos of your performances on youtube ever since hearing the sobering news of your illness. I asked myself why the illness of a person I've known only through a character played on TV would affect me with such sadness. After all, the character an actor plays is not the real person, nor does the actor wish to be remembered for the character they play, but for the character who they are. I decided however, that an actor's soul always shines through to an audience - it's the part of them that is the character that we love, and it is the part of you that was Rhoda that made me feel so connected to you, as strongly connected as if you were my friend of many years.
There are reasons for this connection with an actor, I believe, and reasons for my connection with you. I believe that there is no one who could have brought more comic realism and understanding of this character of Rhoda than you did. Behavior scientists call people who walk with us in the same period of time "cohorts" in history. I call them time-walkers. You are a time-walker with me and with millions, and your character and the precise rendering you gave to that character reflected something deep that was going on in America during the 70s.
While millions of us watched as you unfolded Rhoda's story for us, you didn't have the opportunity to watch us! Behind the TV screens that watched you, behind the soaring ratings, were a myriad of individual stories. We will never know precisely how your role affected those stories, but we can analyze how that might have been. Here is one of those millions of stories. I tell it to you with the hope that knowing the impact you had on our real lives will bring you joy.
Click Below Picture to View 1st Episode on Hulu
When "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" show started in September of 1970, I was teaching deaf and hard of hearing students while my husband of a few months was serving in Quang Tri, South Vietnam. Today I searched in the shoebox of letters labeled "Vietnam". I found one dated "Saturday, 19 Sept.'70," the very day "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" first aired. It wasn't a particularly unusual letter from "Tim" that day. It was similar to all the letters he wrote - letters that reiterated the loneliness of war and the longing to go home. He asked about my day at school in that letter, talked about a student I had mentioned, and added: "...I wish that I could hold you in my arms now, my love, look into your beautiful soul, and show with my kisses what is in my heart and what I am unable to say. Very soon, Love, only 26 more days" - a reference to Tim's R & R (Rest and Relaxation) for 5 days in Hawaii in October of 1970 before he would return to Vietnam for the second half of his tour.
Of course, there were no TVs in Tim's hootch in Vietnam when he wrote that letter, so he wouldn't have seen that opening episode where you were introduced to the audience washing windows behind closed drapes. But later that day, across the globe, I would be watching in my parent's apartment where I was living until Tim returned home. Through continued months of worry and waiting, I watched the show while your character became more dear to me and a welcome distraction. My mother, father and I laughed at the dilemmas of Mary and Lou and the acerbic humor of Murray, but really, we always were waiting for scenes with you! The edginess you gave to Rhoda was modified by the heart you skillfully let shine through that character. I believe she actually became a metaphor for the "sweet me" becoming a "cynical me" with the reality of war.
When my husband would return from Vietnam in December of 1970, we left for Tacoma, WA where Tim finished his tour at Ft. Lewis. We'd watch "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" faithfully on a Saturday night in our tiny furnished apartment. Perhaps it was the way you adeptly added Rhoda's rye cynicism that helped me accept the edge I'd see in Tim upon his return from Vietnam. Tim approached life with that mildly dark humor that Rhoda had and with an impatience for superficiality. Just as Rhoda had no patience with the rigidity of Phyllis, Tim had no fear of authority from that point on. "What are they going to do to me? Draft me? Send me to Viet Nam?", he'd say.
Through Rhoda's character as you portrayed her, America began to view the individual in society who thinks outside of the box a bit differently than they had before. The beautiful Rhoda in her Bohemian style of dress and beaded-curtain style of decorating was a contrast to the classic, girl-back-home character of Mary. A post-Vietnam nation now could view your meticulously crafted character with a respect of those who questioned values that often needed to be questioned. Of course, none of us realized any of this at the time; you simply provided release from the reality of life. You took our hand and walked along with us through the pivotal timeline of our history. And as we changed, your writers changed the character of Rhoda. Her life, as ours, became more complicated as the series "Rhoda" developed. And you nimbly transitioned that character, your comedic timing genius never skipping a beat. While Rhoda was going through her separation from Joe, my husband and I held the hand of a dying friend. During Rhoda's divorce, my father entered the hospital for electro-shock therapy for the second time in his life. The question of whether life imitates art or art imitates life could not be more fitting as we all marched along. Each of us walking the sands of our timeline leave footprints. Yours, however, will extend farther along that invisible line because as long as sound and light can be conducted along airwaves or radio waves or whatever waves the future uses to transmit, your work will be viewed and your legacy will live on.
You are part of that elite group who are privileged to help us, your "cohorts," walk through life. Of all great artists, comedic actors are the ones who hold our hands and pick us up when we stumble on life. You are the ones who make us laugh and take away our stress. You are the ones who help us go back to our classrooms, our jobs, our drudgery - refreshed. You give us something to look forward to at the end of a day filled perhaps with worry and sadness. And you, in particular, Valerie, have done that with brilliance. You took our hands and walked along this time line with us as one of the most beloved because of who you are.
My hope is that you now can imagine our hands - the hands of the millions who love your work, holding yours. Do I think that millions of people can love an actor? Can we love someone we know only through a character on TV? All I know is that it's very difficult NOT to have feelings of love for someone who has given us so much. And so I will say we DO love you - not because of the character Rhoda, not because of the many roles you've played, but because always your soul has shone through, and it's quite an endearing soul.
With great admiration,