Thursday, September 5, 2019

Valerie Harper: Savory Ham on Rye?

Who could resist Valerie Harper? At the start of the 1970s, on the always hilarious Mary Tyler Moore Show, she was Rhoda Morgenstern, the best buddy whose self-deprecating wit and funky style made for a vivid counterpoint to the girl-next-door charm of Mary Richards,. Mary was of course played (by series star Mary Tyler Moore) as a bubbly Midwesterner, a would-be broadcast journalist cursed with the perennial desire to be nice. Her pal Rhoda, a window-dresser by trade, is a blunt New York transplant who bemoans the size of her hips (well, next to the reed-like Mary, anyone would look chubby) as well as her failures on the dating scene. Niceness—as opposed to datelessness—isn’t something Rhoda worries much about..

Part of Rhoda’s unique appeal is that, in a series set in Minneapolis, she’s at least a tiny bit East Coast ethnic. Not that her apparent Jewishness goes much beyond her name  Still, she adds to Mary’s white-bread allure a nice slice of pumpernickel, or maybe even corn rye. So beloved was she on the Mary Tyler Moore Show that the show’s production company, headed by MTM’s husband Grant Tinker, got the bright idea that Rhoda should head her own series. He enlisted the same veteran comedy writers (James L. Brooks and Allan Burns) who’d given the Mary Tyler Moore cast such great things to say. The writers posited that now Rhoda has returned to her native Upper East Side, where she’s living with her parents Nancy Walker and Harold Gould. There’s a fair amount of Jewish shtik (much favored in that era, but slightly distasteful now – are you listening, Mrs. Maisel?), and Rhoda’s Mary Tyler Moore buddies drop in from Minneapolis to help her adjust. I even recall a direct comic steal from the famous opening of Mary Tyler Moore in which our Mary, ready for life in the big city, exuberantly flings her tam into the air. Rhoda tries this in Times Square, only to have the hat flop to the sidewalk. Oh well!

Rhoda lasted five years, so I wouldn’t consider it a disaster. But many of us who set viewership records watching Rhoda get married were bound to be disappointed. A domestically contented Rhoda was not the Rhoda we knew and loved. Ironically, it fell to her sidekick, the sister played by Julie Kavner, to channel all the insecurity that had helped us identify with Rhoda herself. Kavner, who for years has earned a nice paycheck as Marge Simpson, has a great adenoidal voice, and it was easy to accept her as a Rhoda in the making.

One personal story: when I was working for Roger Corman at New World Pictures, director Monte Hellman needed an actor to play the sidekick of Warren Oates in Cockfighter. Since I was helping with casting, he asked me to call in Richard Shull. I looked through the era’s casting bible, couldn’t locate a Richard Shull, but spotted the name Richard Schaal, which certainly sounded similar. I knew who he was: Valerie Harper’s spouse, and a veteran of improv theatre. So I booked him for an interview, and he showed up at our scruffy offices, very excited. Only to be told, alas, that he wasn’t the New York guy Monte had in mind. Rarely have I felt so sorry for a stranger: it was 1973, Dick was wed to one of TV’s brightest stars, and he clearly was desperate to show off his own talents. So it goes in Hollywood—no wonder the marriage didn’t last. And I’ve never stopped feeling a wee bit guilty.  

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