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Valerie Harper Was the Friend Every Gay Man Wanted

Courtesy of CBS

Harper, and her beloved character of Rhoda, were beautiful and kind underdogs.

Whenever a beloved public figure dies, there are outpourings of grief from legions of fans. In one of the many absurdities of celebrity culture, the vast majority of those fans didn't ever meet their beloved hero in person, but had the overwhelming feeling that they knew them.

I don't know if I've ever felt this sensation more strongly than today, when the sad news broke that Valerie Harper had passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. (I haven't been this broken up since Mary Tyler Moore left us.) Harper, of course, was most famous for portraying the character of Rhoda Morgenstern, a tough-talking, wisecracking Jewish woman from the Bronx who went from Mary Richards' sidekick on TheMary Tyler Moore Show to helm her own spin-off, Rhoda. She won four well-earned Emmys for playing the character.

Harper filled the role of Rhoda so beautifully, it was hard to believe they were separate entities. As Harper would say, people would often yell "Hi Rhoda!" to her on the street upon recognizing her. Unlike many famous actors, she never resented the association. "I was lucky to have Rhoda," Harper often told journalists.

The queer identification with Rhoda was obvious: she was an outsider, a foil to the perfection that was Mary Richards. Mary was comfortable being single and as a TV news producer had "the kind of job Gloria Steinem wants you to have" -- as Rhoda once put it. Rhoda was insecure and upfront about being desperate for a date on a Saturday night, and held a less-than-glamorous job as a department-store window dresser. Making the invitation for a queer identification with her complete, she rarely, if ever, lost her sense of humor. Harper's comic timing was sheer brilliance: in their review of the first episode of Mary Tyler Moore, Variety noted that Harper risked stealing the entire show.

The story of Harper's casting is telling: producers were struggling to find someone to play Moore's frumpy upstairs neighbor. Then they had a thought: why not cast someone who thinks of herself as frumpy, but is in fact gorgeous? This would lead even more people to identify with Rhoda, as everyone has their insecurities but would love to think they're actually a knockout. After Harper was cast, the wardrobe department was challenged: how do we make such an obviously beautiful woman look like second fiddle to the equally-stunning Moore? Part of the answer came in often putting Harper's hair up in a scarf, which became Rhoda's signature look.

When I interviewed Harper for The Advocate in 2006, she said she knew from early on that gays loved her character. One of the first interviews she did during The Mary Tyler Moore Show was with legendary gay author and film critic Vito Russo, who also interviewed her for The Advocate. "Vito was lovely," she told me," he had a star quality himself." Harper said she loved her gay fans, recalling a bunch of gay men showing up at an AIDS fundraiser she did on Fire Island, all of them wearing scarves on their heads, Rhoda-style. "I've always felt very strongly about human rights, for blacks, women and gays," she said. "Our constitution is about equality for all -- that's got to mean something to all of us."

Harper knew her character's marginal status made her an obvious draw for gays: "Rhoda was somewhat insecure but also very courageous. She was an outsider... and her wardrobe was outrageous; she wore those big earrings and crazy outfits. She never wore beige."

But despite being an outsider, Rhoda still came off as someone who would emerge a winner. One of Harper's favourite descriptions of Rhoda came in a 1973 Time magazine cover story that declared her a "victorious loser." Her character embodies a message: she told audiences that you could be eccentric and brash, but still come out on top. "Mary was the person you wanted to be," Harper often said of the difference between Mary Richards and her character, "but Rhoda was the person you probably were."

And Harper would appear in an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show that is now regarded as a landmark in terms of LGBTQ representation. In season 3, Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) is horrified to think that her visiting brother (played by out gay actor Robert Moore) might be falling for Rhoda. Rhoda breaks the news to clueless Phyllis that her brother is, in fact, gay. Phyllis responds with euphoria, gasping "Oh what a relief!" This was an early depiction of a gay character in a pre-Ellen, pre-Will & Grace TV universe -- and even better, his being gay didn't bother any of the other characters. The show assumed that decent people -- the kind of people Mary would surround herself with -- wouldn't even consider homophobia an option. Harper told me that the audience laughed and cheered for over a minute when Rhoda uttered the he's-gay line -- an eternity in front of a live audience.

I'm greatly saddened by Harper's passing, but especially sad that she had to suffer though so much cancer (lung cancer followed by brain cancer), which is a harsh way to leave this world. She will live on, of course, as Rhoda, in reruns and DVD collections everywhere. I'll never forget the sheer thrill of meeting and interviewing her; I commented to a friend after that the frisson felt "like I was meeting myself in another life." Yes, the identification was that powerful.

And I will always be thankful to Harper for giving such sharp wit, soul, sincerity and kindness to Rhoda, a character that made so many of us laugh while inspiring us with the idea that, despite our insecurities and imperfections, we could also make it after all.

MatthewHays, a longtime contributor to The Advocate, has also contributed to The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post and VICE. He teaches media studies courses at Concordia University and Marianopolis College in Montreal.

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Matthew Hays