By Sue Ellen Jares
Updated June 02, 1980 12:00 PM

During her nine-year run as TV’s Rhoda Morgenstern, Valerie Harper spent much of her time on camera fretting over her chubby flanks and lean love life. “What am I?” Rhoda brooded once on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show. “I’m not married. I’m not engaged. I’m not even pinned. I bet Hallmark doesn’t even have a card for me!”

For Valerie, now 38, real life is no such lament. Having survived the demise of both her Rhoda TV series and her 14-year marriage to actor-writer Dick Schaal during 1978, she is today a new woman—secure, skinny and spoken for. Much of the credit goes to her fitness adviser turned lover, Tony Cacciotti. Moreover, while narrowing her hips, he’s also helped broaden her horizons.

Harper has already appeared in two feature films this year—The Last Married Couple in America and Chapter Two. She’s starring in an ABC movie this week, Fun and Games, about sexual harassment of women. And later this year she’ll appear on the same network in The Shadow Box, a Paul Newman-directed play-turned-film about terminal illness.

If Cacciotti, 40, has now become a combination Svengali, Jack LaLanne and Jon Peters to Harper, she admits, “I wasn’t attracted to him at first.” Packing a lumpish 138 pounds and facing a swimsuit scene in Chapter Two, she went to Tony last June. He was known in Hollywood as the consultant responsible for shaping up stars like John Travolta (for Saturday Night Fever), Richard Gere (American Gigolo) and John Ritter (Hero at Large).

Val cautioned him at their first meeting: “I’ve got to take off my jacket so you can see what you’ll be working with.” Answered Tony, not approvingly, “Don’t worry, I can see.” (Her specific complaint: “I knew I looked okay in a bathing suit, but I never thought I could minimize my hips and thighs.”)

Cacciotti, a wiry 160-pounder (whom Ritter dubbed “The Lone Re-Arranger”), put Valerie on a regimen of slow stretching, running a mile a day, and strengthening her arms by lifting three-pound weights. Simultaneously he ordered a low-sugar, low-starch, no-snacking-at-night diet (although he does believe in “garbaging it up on weekends” to avoid tension). Originally a dancer when she left her Jersey City home, Harper was never as unsightly as she suggests in her wry jokes about the Fun and Games theme: “I haven’t faced the casting couch, ever. No one even asked me to do anything. I must be a dog!” Still, she had puffed up to 160 pounds during her Rhoda period. “She had tried all kinds of systems—machines, exercise classes, dance and liquid protein,” Tony notes. “It was a challenge. We only had six or seven weeks. But I don’t allow excuses. I get around them and show results right away.” By the time she shot the bathing suit scene, she was more than 20 pounds lighter.

Valerie, not the movie studio, was paying for her three-hour-per-day, six-day-a-week sessions with Tony. Romantic attraction began as slowly as the pounds disappeared. “I thought, ‘What a beautiful, giving teacher,'” she remembers. “Although I’m a feminist and think it’s terrific to call a man if you’re comfortable, I don’t do it. I don’t set my cap for a guy unless he makes the first move. I’m a little reticent sexually.”

When the Chapter Two cast went to New York for location filming in August, Valerie invited Tony along to prevent any conditioning lapses. The couple kept to separate rooms and a platonic friendship—until a day-off visit to the Museum of Modern Art. “We both acted about 16 when he told me it’d be nice for us to get closer,” chirps Valerie. Things progressed to the point last fall that they began sharing Val’s airy Malibu beachfront apartment.

Since then he has become Valerie’s manager and head of a new production company they have cutely dubbed TAL, for Together At Last. “There are a lot of things I don’t know about producing, but in a few months I’ve learned so much that we’re not going to make any mistakes,” Tony boasts.

Neither he nor Harper seems concerned that her celebrity might cause problems. “It’s true I had a series, but I’ve also been on unemployment,” Harper observes, noting that she and Tony have a lot in common. Both have been married before (he is a twice-divorced father of four children, none of whom live with him and Harper). Both are lapsed Catholics; her stepmother was a second-generation New York Italian and he grew up in an immigrant Italian family in Auburn, N.Y. When Harper visited Cacciotti’s family last Christmas, it merited a story in the local paper headlined “‘Rhoda’ in love with Auburnite.” Tony’s brother Joe, a real estate executive, says Valerie fit right in. “She’s been very pleasant every time she’s been here,” he says.

The youngest of four sons born to a macaroni maker, Tony began lifting weights while a teenager in Spring Grove, Pa. (“He went to private school because he was spoiled,” Joe explains.) Despite bit parts on and off-Broadway, including West Side Story and The Fantasticks, Cacciotti made his name as a tummy tightener. He has commanded up to $7,500 a week to prescribe fitness routines for business executives as well as performers, and plans to publish an exercise book on his methods.

Cacciotti has recently given up his individual counseling to search out projects for TAL (but hasn’t totally given up acting—he appeared as Bert Convy’s sidekick in Hero at Large). He’s budgeted an estimated $10 million for a film based on the life of Joyce DeVillez, now in Indiana Women’s Prison for hiring a man to kill the husband she contends abused her and her children. Harper will star in that film as well as Animerica, a thriller she describes as “about the book business.” Val will not appear in TAL’s planned Promised Land, involving asbestos workers and cancer.

While work has forced her to cut back on her exercise time, Tony is determined not to allow any serious backsliding. She still runs two to five miles a day, lifts 10-pound weights and works out on a parallel bar in the living room. “What she’s done to her pectoral region is amazing,” says Tony. “It’s like an 18-year-old girl’s.”

Some moviegoers and critics complain that she has lost too much weight—the New York Times, for example, said she looked “horrifyingly thin” in Chapter Two. “They knew Rhoda,” explains Val. “No one complains that Sally Field is tiny and has bones showing, so I know the emphasis on my being thin has to do with what people were expecting. What they can expect is a Valerie Harper who’s thin.” She has now regained eight pounds, filling out to a less reedy 125 on a 5’6″ frame.

She is determined to stay at that level, she says, because not even the most extravagant perfume can help the porky lady. “You put it on and the men don’t look at you,” she jokes. “You think you’re going to make love, and your husband says, ‘What is this? You smell like citronella!'”

Talk of husbands has no particular significance. She does not foresee marriage in the immediate future, and Tony declares: “People are not as considerate of each other when they marry. We don’t want to spoil it.” Valerie, however, has only kind words for ex-mate Dick Schaal. “We had a successful marriage and a successful divorce,” she says. “Neither of us had to escape from a horrible person that we hated being around. It was, ‘Look, this is not a marriage and hasn’t been for some time.'” When Schaal remarried last February, Valerie and Tony were among the guests.

Besides work, Harper has thrown herself into a variety of causes—from EST to ERA to Cambodian refugees. She is happy and eager to say so. “The old life was not bad, but with Tony everything is fresh and new,” says Valerie. “It’s like Carlos Castaneda would say: All paths in life lead to the same place—nowhere. So choose one with heart.”