News on Tuesday that actress Valerie Harper has terminal cancer, with doctors giving her three months to live, quickly led to an outpouring of support from her famous friends and from fans. Harper, now 73, has long been an ally to the LGBT community. She is still adored for her portrayal of Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, a role that won her four Emmy awards. Harper talked about her connection with LGBT viewers in this interview with The Advocate in 2006.
The Advocate: Why do you think so many gays identify with Rhoda Morgenstern?
Valerie Harper: Rhoda was somewhat insecure but also very courageous. In Minneapolis she was an outsider; she was Jewish and a New Yorker. She was always chiding Mary about how straight she was. Rhoda had an artistic streak too — I mean, she was a window dresser, but she made the best of it. And her wardrobe was outrageous; she wore those big earrings and crazy outfits. She never wore beige.
When did you first know that gays associated with Rhoda?
Right from the start. One of the earliest interviews I did about Rhoda was with [late author and AIDS activist] Vito Russo, who came to my dressing room to talk with me for The Advocate. My manager, who was gay, said, “Are you sure you want to do an interview for the gay press?” And I said, “Of course!” Vito was lovely — he had a star quality himself. We lost him way too soon. I’ve always felt very strongly about human rights, for blacks, women, and gays. Our Constitution is about equality for all — that’s got to mean something to all of us.
There’s an episode in season 3 of The Mary Tyler Moore Show where Rhoda dates Phyllis’s brother and Phyllis is horrified to think that he might fall for Rhoda. Then Rhoda breaks the news to Phyllis about her brother.
That he’s gay! Yes, I loved doing that episode. When I tell Phyllis, she says, “Oh, what a relief!” Do you know, when I said that line “He’s gay,” we got the biggest laugh ever on the show? I mean, this was the ’70s, long before Will & Grace or Ellen; there really weren’t gay characters on television back then. The audience laughed and cheered for over a minute. They had to take most of the audience response out for the broadcast cut. It was amazing. That was an extremely well-written episode — we were blessed with brilliant writing on that show.
Mary Tyler Moore once said that she bumped into a drag queen who was dressed up as her. Do you ever see drag queens dressed as Rhoda?
No, but 10 years ago I did an AIDS fund-raiser on Fire Island, and I went dressed as Rhoda with the headgear on and everything. And a bunch of gay men lined up to have their photo taken with me, and many of them had Rhoda scarves wrapped around their heads. It was fantastic! I’ve always been so impressed with the way gays responded to that crisis in their community. They rallied the troops and protected the family. I think it’s incredible.