Suing the Bosses Who Bounced Her, a Bitter Valerie Harper Fights to Save Her Reputation
When it comes to litigious temper tantrums, none this season can compare to the backstage slime slinging between Valerie Harper and her TV bosses at NBC and Lorimar, producers of the sitcom Valerie. You know how the fight began: After two seasons on the show, Harper wanted more money and creative control. The bosses claim the star walked off the job. “Ha!” said Harper. “This star did not walk off, but was fired.” Take that, said Lorimar, suing Harper for $70 million for breach of contract. Take this, said Harper, countersuing for $180 million in damages.
Ugly? As the saying goes, you ain’t heard nothing yet.
Last week the parties met in court for round one of an acrimonious battle that could go on for months. Lorimar executives claimed that their decision to replace Harper with Sandy Duncan was the result of Harper’s “disruptive” behavior. Valerie co-executive producer Bob Boyett recalled that Harper was “screaming and crying and verbally assaulting various of the show’s creative personnel.” Added co-executive producer Tom Miller of her one-episode return to the set: “She lunged towards me, yelling, ‘You were glad I wasn’t here. And you loved it. You loved it.’ ” Said Harper: “They are saying that Valerie Harper is crazy and neurotic and that I was disabled as an actress. I will prove the conspiracy they made to ruin my reputation.”
Even sitting on the sofa of her recently purchased home in Beverly Hills, Harper, 47, still seems to be reeling. “This is the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “I feel robbed and ripped off. There’s the feeling that Valerie Harper is this greedy, clutching actress. That’s a bald-faced lie.” Sitting beside her is Tony Cacciotti, 48, another co-executive producer on Valerie, and Harper’s longtime manager and husband since April. “I’m the type that holds grudges,” says Cacciotti, a former fitness trainer.
Hands gesticulating, Harper describes the circumstances that led to the court battle. “The show was our baby, our little creation,” says Harper, who helped develop the series with Cacciotti. After two seasons of weak ratings, Valerie was finally moving up. Given the show’s success, Harper insists their demands for a bigger piece of the profits were not only modest but overdue. Harper and Cacciotti will not discuss specifics. But Lorimar, in its court filings, indicated that the terms of the couple’s 1985 contract called for Harper to receive $56,750 per episode by her third year, plus 10 percent of the show’s adjusted gross profits. In May, says Lorimar, the couple demanded an increase to $100,000 per episode for Harper and 35 percent of the adjusted gross profits.
When Lorimar refused, Harper did not show up for work. That ploy had worked for her in the past: In 1975, before her second season as Rhoda, she refused to perform until CBS upped her salary from $10,000 to $17,500 a week. She won, but not before Robert Wood, then CBS-TV president, warned his colleagues that “we must be prepared to drop a regular from the cast of a series, or start a new season with reruns, or even substitute a different program at the last minute.”
Twelve years later NBC heeded Wood’s advice. In late July, with Harper on strike, the producers shot an episode without her. She returned to the set on Aug. 4 only after a compromise was reached offering Harper $65,000 per episode and 12.5 percent of the domestic gross receipts. “I was ecstatic,” says Harper. But a week later, after shooting one episode, she received a call saying she was being sacked. Lorimar says they acted on Harper’s continued “fury, hysteria, combative-ness and paranoia.” Miller said she begged, “I can’t do this with my life, cut me loose.” Lies, says Harper, adding, “It felt great to be back.” After the firing, she went through trying times “that impacted every area of my life.” She and Tony had just adopted a daughter, Cristina, 4, and, Valerie says, “I had to lie to her and pretend I had a cold and that’s why I was crying. Even people who think I’m a pushy broad wouldn’t wish this on me.”
Not quite. Says NBC Entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff: “Valerie brought this on herself. She was a holdout at a tremendous cost to us. When this blew up into a war, we decided to go with plan B.” Tartikoff publicly joked about retitling the show At Home With What’s Her Name. Harper sees such comments as a “veiled threat to actors trying to straighten out their contracts.” She warns Tartikoff that such tactics one day will “bite him in the ass.”
Harper had more wounds to lick. No sooner had she lost her job than she learned that her TV character was being killed off. Sandy Duncan would portray Valerie’s sister-in-law, newly divorced and ready to move in and play mother to Val’s three sons (Jason Bate-man, Danny Ponce and Jeremy Licht) six months after their mother died in a car crash. “I think it’s a callous, heartless, irresponsible decision to kill a mother on a comedy on national TV,” says Harper. “I want to yell, ‘Run, Bambi, run!’ These guys must really hate me.” In one part of her suit, Harper demanded that the show, newly titled Valerie’s Family, stop using her name now that it has stopped using her.
Harper phoned her TV family personally with her bad news. “I didn’t want the boys to hear on the streets that their mom had been canned. All three were really shocked,” she says. “Danny Ponce [who plays one of her twin sons] was hysterical when he heard I was going to die on the show.” Says Jason Bateman, the 18-year-old heartthrob: “She was like my second mom. When she left the show it jarred us.” Bateman’s support may surprise some who insist that one of Harper’s main problems on the series was jealousy over Jason’s burgeoning popularity. “Absurd,” says Harper. “I just didn’t want us to get in a rut where every week it was Jason and another girl. I wanted the little boys used more.” Boyett, recalling one of Harper’s last days of taping, paints a different picture. “She came up to me sobbing and said, ‘I can’t do this to my career. I can’t stand in the kitchen and give advice to teenage boys.’ ”
More disturbing to Harper was the completely unfounded rumor that the problems on the show started as a result of her allegedly troubled marriage to Tony. The agency from which she and Cacciotti adopted Cristina(the adoption has not yet been made final) even paid a visit to check out the situation. Some agency people had read a tabloid report that Harper and Cacciotti were having marital difficulties. “Can you imagine how frightening it is during adoption to have a call like that?” she asks. “I had to tell them everything was okay.”
Harper appreciates the support of such colleagues as Dennis Weaver, Nancy Walker, Gavin MacLeod and even Duncan, who sends this message of advice to Harper: “You are so talented. But you just can’t hang on [to this show] forever. Look at this as a divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. Believe in your own survival instincts, Valerie, and just go on. You can’t wallow in something for too long or negative energy takes over. Ultimately this is not of global interest.” Duncan, who says she’s met and likes Harper, adds that she feels no guilt at stepping into the star spot. “This is a new character I’m playing,” she says. “If it wasn’t me it would have been someone else. I just hope Valerie’s not unhappy.”
Of course she is. Harper mentions a possible Broadway play and a TV talk show, but she fears that the case may have made her a “pariah” in the industry. “I don’t have a reputation of being a super-witch who demands pink rugs in the dressing room,” she says. “And I’ve never shown up drunk or had a substance-abuse problem, except doughnuts.” Her need to vindicate herself, however, doesn’t mean she wishes ill for Valerie’s Family. “In my heart, I can’t say I want the show to sink,” she says. “You know what?” she adds, suddenly brightening. “I’d go back tomorrow if I could.”