NEW YORK, March 6, 2013 − Valerie Harper, 73, who portrayed the lively TV character Rhoda Morgenstern first on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and later on the spinoff series “Rhoda,” has terminal brain cancer, a diagnosis that she revealed Wednesday morning on NBC’s “Today Show” as well as on “People Magazine’s” website.
Harper, in rehearsal earlier this year with the touring company of the Broadway show “Looped,” had abruptly withdrawn from the cast due to a then undisclosed illness, now believed to be a rare condition known as leptomeningeal carcinomatosis. The term describes a cancer that has spread to the brain’s fluid-filled membranes.
Harper had starred as legendary actress Tallulah Bankhead in the original Broadway production of the show, and was set to reprise the role on the tour.
Harper had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009 which she appeared to have beaten. Her current condition is “most likely related to her previous battle with lung cancer,” stated one source, also noting that “Harper’s doctors reportedly have told her she may have just three months to live.”
Medscape states that the cancer affecting Harper is “also termed neoplastic meningitis… a serious complication of cancer that carries substantial rates of morbidity and mortality.” The affliction “may occur at any stage in the neoplastic disease, either as the presenting sign or as a late complication, though it is associated frequently with relapse of cancer elsewhere in the body.”
Harper initially achieved national fame for her vivid, colorful portrayal of Rhoda, Mary Tyler Moore’s funny and volatile sidekick on Moore’s long-running 1970s TV series. So popular was Harper’s character that she won her eponymous spinoff series, which ran for four seasons from 1974 to 1978.
Before her announcement today, Harper had reportedly called Moore to relate her unfortunate news. Sources say that Moore was “absolutely devastated” over her Harper’s condition, a situation made more poignant by the fact that Moore herself had a benign tumor excised from her brain in 2011.
After her stint on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Harper also starred in a later sitcom, “Valerie,” in 1986, but quit that series in a contract dispute. She later ran for president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 2001, but lost that election to former “Little House on the Prairie” star Melissa Gilbert.
While still occasionally doing TV, Harper returned to the stage, where she’d started out her career in the late 1950s as a chorus girl. In 2005-2006, she played Golda Meier in a national touring production. More recently, she played the temperamental actress Tallulah Bankhead in the world-premiere of Matthew Lombardo’s Looped.
The show opened in the Pasadena Playhouse in 2008, and traveled to Washington’s Arena Stage in 2009.The play did not do well, however, when it hit Broadway in 2010, closing after a brief run there, even though Harper had been nominated for a Tony. Last year, Lombardo began to put together a national tour to revive the show, inking Harper to reprise her starring role. But she left rehearsals for the show in mid-January due to her illness, and has been replaced on the tour by former TV star Stephanie Powers. (For a video promo of the show recorded earlier, click here.)
According to a report in the Hartford Courant, Rob Ruggiero, who directed Harper in the Broadway version of “Looped” and worked with her again on the touring show, finds the current news to be “incredibly sad and undescribable because it doesn’t seem quite real.”
“I communicate almost daily with Val,” he says, “and we talk every few days. She remains very positive and is embracing each day.”
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