Valerie Harper: with news of her illness, FYI looks into our archives
Valerie Harper has been diagnosed with brain cancer and been given months to live. FYI looks back on a memorable interview with Harper from 2006
It says a lot about a person if they have a healthy laugh. In conversation Valerie Harper laughs frequently, joyously, deeply and infectiously.
Such as when she mentions the simple, funny coincidence that she has known two women with the rare name of Iva who have been important in her life: her mother, a one-time nurse from Lloydminster, Sask.; and her lifelong girlfriend, the actress who 45 years ago used to let Harper in on news of auditions.
Then there’s the joy of describing how at the age of 15, in 1956, she had a role as a dancer in a bizarre little black and white rock ‘n’ roll movie “with a thin little tiny plot” starring Chuck Berry and Little Richard that also featured an ingenue named Tuesday Weld. “I didn’t have a speaking role, I was dancing, but you can clearly see me in all of the scenes,” she recalls.
Even discussing her efforts to watch her weight — a battle that was played out on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where landlady Phyllis was always on the case of chubby Rhoda, played by Harper, until like a swan Rhoda emerged newly thin and gorgeous — there is friendly, self-deprecating humour. “It’s a real problem in terms of, I just could overeat so easily and be as big as a house.”
The ostensible goal of the interview was to learn how Harper, at 64, manages to stay fit and healthy, maintain a glowing and handsome, even beautiful, complexion, and find the energy needed to take to the stage every night in her touring one-woman show playing Israeli hero Golda Meir.
Harper patiently outlined the exercise routines, diet and face cream that are part of her weekly regimen, but over the course of two conversations, from hotels in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, she revealed a lot more. Harper is proof that superficial qualities like nice looks and a good figure are much less important to achieving healthy aging than maintaining an active mind, seeking new challenges, relying on a network of close friends, finding support in a loving romantic relationship and, yes, remembering to laugh.
Harper, born in northern New York state to that Canadian-born mother and a hockey-playing father from Washington state, has forged a career, first as a dancer then as a character actress, that has lasted 50 years, with her greatest success coming as the Jewish window dresser Rhoda Morgenstern in first the Mary Tyler Moore Showand then Rhoda, from 1970-78. Rhoda's wedding to Joe in 1974 was watched by 50-million viewers, one of the largest TV audiences in history.
In later years she has appeared on numerous TV programs, in some films and on stage, notably in the 1990s in another one-woman play that she co-wrote based on the life of U.S. human-rights advocate and feminist Pearl. S. Buck. She still resurrects it occasionally. “My mother loved Pearl,” she confides.
Golda’s Balcony, written by William Gibson (The Miracle Worker), had a successful run on Broadway and, last year, the producers approached Harper to take it on the road. The tour started in October and will run through the spring, with appearances in Columbus, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Toronto, among other cities.
The paradoxes of Harper’s life seem to converge as she discusses playing Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister who led her nation through the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
The comedian with the quick and hearty laugh has exercised a strong social conscience throughout her adult years, marching with Martin Luther King, fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment and against child poverty, supporting Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and working for the Congress of Racial Equality.
And then there’s religion. Most people assume she’s Jewish. But the woman who played one of TV’s strongest Jewish characters on Rhodaand who is now cast as an Israeli hero, who even calls herself a Zionist, was raised Catholic — sort of.
“My mother was United Church of Canada, but because she had to go to church three times a day and cook dinner, Sunday was a horror for her, so she said, I’ll never push my kids into religion. We went to the Catholic school as little ones, and of course I didn’t want to burn in hell, so the three of us converted.
“By the time I was 15 I became agnostic. I respect all religions, I think they are marvellous for people if it serves them, but I am agnostic.”
Her feminist leanings led her to her initial appreciation of Golda Meir.
“She was a hero of mine in the sixties, and in the women’s movement there was a wonderful poster that had Golda’s face, which was like no-one else’s, completely recognizable, and under it it said, But can she type?” (She laughs.)
She visited Israel in the 1970s and remains a strong defender of the Jewish state. “Anybody who is not a Zionist is not looking clearly at the world or at history.”
A Jewish friend, Penny Almog, served as the model for the voice of Rhoda, and she remains one of four close girlfriends who are always available for support if Harper feels the need. Also on speed-dial is her daughter Cristina, 22. And always nearby is her husband of 20 years, Tony Cacciotti, 65, whom Harper obviously adores. She frequently quotes his advice on diet, exercise, even cosmetic surgery.
It all seems to add up to a rich and stimulating life for the woman who doesn’t shy away from a fight, such as the well-publicized election battle she lost for the Screen Actors Guild presidency in 2001.
“Here’s what I do. The heartbreakingness of the world, I always see the possibility for transformation. The idea of infinite possibility lives very strongly in me. Because like Golda,” she said, “we cannot afford to be pessimists, we’ll be down for the count.”
The beauty bible according to Harper
Valerie Harper, 64, dispenses homespun, sensible advice for older women aiming to stay slim, fit and youthful:
• KEEP ACTIVE: If you move, you will continue to stay active. Most people eat more and move less. You should do the opposite. We should eat a little less as our metabolism slows down and move a little more.
• EXERCISE: I have a knee problem, so now I use the elliptical. Low impact, but at least you’re doing cardio. And then I use weights, and then I do stretching. It’s a three-pronged deal, and for women small weights can do a whole lot for keeping arms firm. And not just for looks but for strength.
And then I do my ballet stretches. I do yoga stretches and leg lifts, things (my husband) Tony has taught me, at least a half hour, probably more. The weights I do every day.
• DIET: I did go to a wonderful woman in California, Carol Ehrlich, who has PD, personalized diet. The whole thing about Carol Ehrlich is, you are a food junkie so it’s got to taste good. You eat tastily, but without harming yourself and eating five boxes of wheat thins. Eat more often; three meals and two snacks, but small, keep my metabolism up.
What I used to do was not eat all day and do some huge thing like a boa constrictor. The body stores that food because it thinks you are starving, and it goes to fat, because all day long you haven’t eaten.
I eat fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, berries and yogurt, strawberries, non-fat yogurt, Laughing Cow cheese.
• SKIN CARE: For skin care I use Issima from Guerlain. It’s not cheap. I have a dear friend who said, Valerie, I know what’s in them all, and you’re paying for the name. As you get older you have to pump up the jam on the richness of the cream. But I have seen a difference and I try to maintain my skin.
• COSMETIC PROCEDURES: I am not going to do it. If a woman thinks I’m not good enough, I’m getting too old, I’m fat, I’m not pretty, that troubles me, makes me sad.
I am a character actress. You gotta remember that. I think the glamour dolls have it very hard. They have a certain look and then that starts to go away and they feel, How can I extend my career? This business is very cruel to women, especially movies.
I don’t condemn it, but I would advise people to think very long and hard before doing it. A little freshening up is one thing, but if your face becomes a construction site, you’re in trouble. And a lot of people who have done too much start to look alike, like some strange sect, or they look related. Because they have the pulled look in the eyes, and the mouth.
I have my parents to thank for (needing) as little as I do. And my husband is four square against it. He keeps telling me, oh you’re gorgeous.
You want to go after aliveness, seizing the day, not the look.