“Hi, babe. Oh, I’m wonderful. What? Oh my God, hang up. I’ve gotta call my husband.” The tears are rolling down Valerie Harper’s cheeks. She slams down the phone on her friend, chokes out a gasp: “My husband’s heard on the radio in Los Angeles we were getting a divorce and he couldn’t reach me last night. Damn it, if some dress manufacturer in Chicago took a vacation alone, perhaps friends would wonder if his marriage were on the rocks but it doesn’t make the papers. But in Hollywood…”
What happened was simply that Valerie had requested the hotel switchboard to turn away all callers, and unintentionally that included her husband of ten years, actor-writer-director Dick Schaal. The result, as Valerie puts it, was that the two of them “were being fishbowled. If this is what it is going to be like, I’ll bow out of the whole thing. I mean I won’t stop living my life as a person just because I’m getting my own TV series!”
Like it or not, Valerie Harper seems to be the biggest, most golden fish in the 24 new series the TV networks are floating before the American public beginning next week. She played Rhoda Morgenstern for four socko seasons on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, winning three successive Emmys, before spinning off into a CBS series of her own titled Rhoda. It is scheduled against ABC’s NFL Monday Night Football, or what’s left of it after this summer’s players strike. In the series, Rhoda will move to New York and will no longer appear on the old show, but Mary will read letters from her (particularly if Valerie needs a rating boost). Mary’s production company, MTM Enterprises, owns Rhoda, and to get it launched, Mary will guest star both premiere night and on the eighth episode, a one-hour special Oct. 28, in which Rhoda marries a widower (David Groh) with a child. The anxiety of the spinster princess will be passed on to Rhoda’s younger sister Brenda (Julie Kavner).
Valerie is ambivalent but “not overwhelmed” by becoming first banana. “I thought I’d feel a dark quiet moment of self-hatred, that I’d be saying ‘You can’t do it, you’re not a star’ and you know it,” she says, “I’m not a star. I simply have a wonderful job.” A job that pays $25,000 a week plus any profits from the percentage in the series MTM awarded her (perhaps as penance—Valerie started four years ago at an unusually low $700 a week).
The new star attributes her relatively delayed accession (she’s in her early 30s) to the fact that when she started “they were into Sandra Dee types, and I was dark.” She also felt disadvantaged by lousy vision—until “a director told me that myopic girls are best on camera. There’s a glistening in the eyes. It has something to do with the fluid…”
She was born—Catholic—in Suffern, N.Y., and grew up everywhere because her father was an industrial salesman. The marriage was held together for the children. Eventually there was a divorce and a stepmother, Angela, whom Valerie “adores and uses a lot for Rhoda, because she’s Italian and genuine New York.” Valerie’s first ambition was to be a dancer. “I was always spinning around the house,” she recalls. “I saw The Red Shoes at an early age like lots of girls, and my father always paid for lessons.”
Her first decade in show business was in the corps de ballet at the Radio City Music Hall, in Broadway choruses and on a low-budget local daytime TV show. After she met her actor-husband, they both wrote sketches and performed. “Friends said that we deserved the Nobel Prize,” she recalls. “A guest would cancel and instead of Muhammad Ali, we’d have a lady from Lane Bryant, with fashions for the fuller figure. Five minutes to air time and we’d have to strike the boxing blackout and throw in something quick about chubbettes.”
Improvisation became their thing. They first made a name with the Story Theater and, particularly with husband Dick, acting is as much cult as career. Schaal is now organizing a Los Angeles workshop based on the Second City-Story Theater kind of stage games. Valerie will join him between TV seasons, and in the meantime holds acting classes for the Rhoda cast once a week. The Schaals live in a three-bedroom house in Westwood. Dick’s daughter, now 20, from a previous marriage, for a time lived with them. They are not on the “A,” “B,” or any of Hollywood’s socializing circuits.
As for her new stardom, Valerie still frets, “Maybe I’m a fool. I was so comfortable with Mary. We are the best of friends in real life, too, and she’ll only be three stages away at CBS.” If Rhoda bombs out—more than two-thirds of all new TV series do succumb within a season—Valerie philosophizes, “Well, I’ll be sorry, but I won’t dig a grave. It is a part of the gamble that goes with work. After all, I suppose I could go to Rome if I flop and sell lemon ice ’til things cool off.”