Recently Valerie Harper announced that she had incurable brain cancer and has a few months to live. Her response to this tragic news was that she’s enjoying life…now. Several years ago we had the joy and honor to have her grace the October 2007 cover of A&U, headlining our annual holiday gift giving issue.
Hunger for Justice
Humanitarian activist, Valerie Harper, discusses with A&U’S Dann Dulin her involvement with The Hunger Project, her inherited community-service gene, and being forever Rhoda
Let’s go over here, Rho,” I say to Valerie Harper, pointing to a table for us to convene for our interview. She has just finished an outdoor photo shoot in the West Hollywood business district. Then it dawns on me that I have accidentally called her by the character she made legendary on the seventies television sitcom, Rhoda, a spin-off for the character she made endearing on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But it’s an honest mistake, because paling around with her during the photo session I found that she’s as friendly and vivacious as the fictional Rhoda Morgenstern. After the faux pas, we both laugh and she tells me that, at times, even her daughter will playfully call her Rhoda!
If you’re old enough to remember the disco craze and The Gong Show, you’ll probably remember the media stir Rhoda created when she married her dream man, Joe, in the show’s first season. It was the wedding of the year. Who could forget Rhoda traipsing all over Bronx streets in her white gown to get to her wedding?! “I really liked that episode,” Valerie warmly recalls, “as it brought all the Mary Tyler Moore cast together. Those were the best times—when we were all together.” Harper won four Emmys for her portrayal of the flamboyant, lovable character—one for Rhoda, and three for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Little more than a decade later, she starred in another sitcom, Valerie. One episode had an AIDS storyline, which in 1990 was a daring turn for a primetime show.
“It’s unbelievable. The details. The doors. The pond. The orchids are beautiful,” gushes Harper over the environment. Indeed, this is an exquisite, albeit unusual, place that A&U photographer, Tim Courtney, chose to use for the shoot. It’s the Schoos Design firm, located in the heart of West Hollywood. Its two owners have been avid supporters of charities including AIDS Project Los Angeles and Aid for AIDS. Behind the offices, they have designed a huge Zen-style sanctuary, which includes exotic plants, gardens, waterfalls, Tibetan temple bells, Buddhas, and even frogs. The storefront is deceiving and it’s hard to believe that congested Santa Monica Boulevard is just a few feet away. It’s like being transported to another country.
Harper’s actor-husband of twenty years, Tony Cacciotti, who also doubles as her manager, has been present throughout but now prepares to depart. “Bye, Angel. I love you,” she coos, giving him a goodbye kiss. We hunker down in wicker chairs at a large, glass-topped solid wood table perched under a thatched hut. Flowing tiers of sheer curtains hang along the edge of the roof. A waterfall can be heard nearby. Before we even get situated, Harper praises A&U. “What a great magazine it is!” she asserts eagerly. “It’s telling the truth to people in a way they can get it. It’s so appealing, too. It doesn’t look like some kind of journal. It has so much life-saving information. It’s glossy, it’s fun, it’s attractive, and it has great style and panache. I really mean that.” Valerie scoots her chair closer to mine. “And for sixteen years it’s been around. God bless the publisher.”
Valerie has a very upbeat presence, and today she’s dressed to match the surroundings (just coincidence). She wears a short-sleeved red bougainvillea-colored, mandarin-collared top with casual black slacks. Harper is focused, enchanting, intelligent, and she obviously likes A&U—however, is there any other reason she wanted to do this interview? “Oh, my God, just because the magazine exists!” she exclaims.
Beginning her career as a dancer on the New York stage in Take Me Along, Harper has lost countless show business friends to the epidemic. “Michael Bennett and I danced in the chorus together in ‘Subways Are for Sleeping.’ He was eighteen and just off the bus from Buffalo,” reveals Valerie. “Dann, so many have died. AIDS has just cut a swath through my community of creative people. [In the beginning] they were calling it a homosexual disease. My mother’s a nurse and at the time she said, ‘No! People have been dying of this for a long time, Valerie.’”
Harper also agreed to this interview in order to bring attention to The Hunger Project, an organization she has been associated with for over twenty years. The Hunger Project was founded in 1977 by John Denver, Werner Erhard, and Professor Bob Fuller and it’s based on the work of Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome. “We can’t live in a world anymore that is you or me. It’s a you and me world,” emphasizes Harper, in a slow, precise cadence. “These fundamentalist people, be they Muslims, Jews, or Christians, kill us with their adversity. The fundamentalist belief of looking at life—my way or the highway—doesn’t work. It’s an obsolete paradigm for human beings to live in.” She leans onto the table, folding her hands. “We’re not a feeding organization,” Valerie further explains. “The Hunger Project unleashes the human spirit in people so they’ll end their own hunger. In other words, the poor, the poverty-stricken, the hungry, they are the solution, they’re not the problem. We empower them. I have always quoted this: ‘Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime.’”
Several years ago, The Hunger Project moved into full throttle in Africa. “The pandemic had reached such a peak that The Hunger Project had to take it on. They used the same principles that have worked so well in terms of hunger: to confront, to take on, and to take action. That gets to the core, bottoms up,” Harper specifies. “They approached AIDS in Africa by asking, ‘What is the basic cause of the spread of this disease?’ What they came down to was that it is male irresponsibility. Women don’t have any say when, how often, or with whom. [Some of] these men believe that raping a virgin will cure AIDS, that the more children you have the better the man, and if your brother dies his wives are now yours. The male mentality is that the more sexual prowess the better man you are. They’re not evil, it’s just hard-bitten customs—and we have them in our country as well!” she chuckles, raising an eyebrow and donning a silly smirk.
In 2003, The Hunger Project launched a campaign called, “AIDS and Gender Inequality Workshop.” It teaches women how to protect themselves, thus empowering them, and in addition, it works to alter male behavior. “The Hunger Project has trained nearly half a million people in seven countries,” Valerie says with rousing enthusiasm. “They have this ongoing initiative to end AIDS. It gives the tools, the wherewithal, the confidence to take action. I mean, condoms are great but they’re meaningless if they’re not used. Education is the key. Medication is great, but it doesn’t end the epidemic. The answer lies within the people,” she says. “How can I get the puck to you so you can make the goal? When empowered, both men and women can confront and deal with this problem. It is not hopeless. We can deal with it.”
A good chunk of Harper’s time is taken up with humanitarian work, but what has she been doing acting-wise? Staying active, as well! Over the past several years, Valerie has appeared on Family Law, That ’70s Show, Committed, and Sex and the City. In 2001, she wrote her autobiography, Today, I Am Ma’am. In 2006, Harper toured the country in a one-woman show portraying Golda Meir, the former Prime Minister of Israel, in Golda’s Balcony. She plays all the parts from a six-year-old boy to Henry Kissinger, and Harper received critical acclaim for her performance. Last year, the play was adapted into a film by director Jeremy Kagan. It premieres this month in New York City, then opens soon after in Los Angeles.
During the run of Golda’s Balcony, many of the performances were dedicated to various charities. Harper has long been associated with the AIDS community and she has worked with numerous AIDS organizations. A few years ago, when she performed on Broadway and in the touring company of Charles Busch’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, during curtain calls, she’d stop the applause and ask for donations. “I’d say, ‘Drop some coins in the basket on the way out.’ It’s a way of talking to people where the problem is huge, but the opportunity to end it is even more. You enroll them to be part of the solution instead of the problem. Money is fuel,” Valerie enlightens, flashing that familiar radiant smile and gleam in her eyes. “The function of money is extraordinary.”
Though she feels like she hasn’t done enough, Harper continues to remain involved, politically and personally. In the eighties, with the late Dennis Weaver, she cofounded LIFE (Love Is Feeding Everyone), a community-activated food distribution program in Los Angeles. She’s also served on the board of the Rape Treatment Center and is an active member of the Child Welfare League of America. Of all the people this journalist has covered over the past years, with the exception of maybe Elizabeth Taylor [A&U, February 2003], few come close to Valerie’s passion, dedication, and genuine interest in the human family.
What are the roots of her activism? Valerie wonders. The warm afternoon air has by now turned into a cool early evening. She wraps herself in a black knit sweater. “I think it came from my mother, who was a teacher and a nurse. She provided a service and maybe I learned from that. Both my mom and my daddy were generous people, egalitarian,” says Valerie, noting that helping others is just in her character makeup and she has a need to do it. She elaborates: “But in the act of service that’s when you’re really giving the most to yourself. When a person makes a contribution they experience the connectedness of their selves with other people. It’s irresistible!” Just then, a giant purple parrot with yellow eyes, squawks, making a piercing sound. We wait a few seconds for him to quiet down. “I do accept the notion that I make a difference, and also, what I don’t do makes a difference.”
As Valerie finishes dressing for the chill, putting her remaining arm through the sweater sleeve, she reminisces about a benefit she did on Fire Island back in the mid-eighties. It was for a project created by several professional men who had put together some apartments so that parents had a place to lodge while they said goodbye to their sons or daughters who were dying from AIDS. “Some of the guys came to the event with Rhoda scarves,” she cackles, referring to Rhoda’s signature multi-colored, busily designed head bandanna that started a fashion trend at the time. When Harper laughs, it is infectious, and it is a full-on hearty release from her gut. “We took pictures all day long. We had a ball,” she enthuses, then immediately segues, “You know I still get a lot of fan mail from playing Rhoda.” The sitcom still airs in several countries. Many years ago, Harper was working with Liv Ullmann, the revered Scandinavian actress, on The Hunger Project. About Sweden, the country in which she often worked with Ingmar Bergman, Liv told her, ‘Oh, Valerie. The consumption of water goes down when Rhoda comes on.’ I display a puzzled look. Valerie clarifies, “In other words, no one’s going to the bathroom for that half hour! Isn’t that interesting?” She flashes a thoughtful glance. “Liv said she and her boyfriend found Rhoda to be so romantic that they would eat and sip champagne while watching it. I don’t know why it was so appealing to the Swedes!”
After all these years, Rhoda is still reaching out to people, and so is Valerie. Does she have any idea how we can reach out to more people in order to stop the epidemic? “It’s something to inspire us to rise and deal with the problem as a community, as a city, as a country, as a world. With AIDS, it’s a battle that needs to be won. And I really wish people would stay on it, stay focused. I don’t want it to be trendy, ya know,” she says lightly, not deterred by the irritating hedge trimmers that can be heard from beyond the bushes and bonsai garden. “Margaret Mead, the renowned American anthropologist said, ‘Never doubt for an instant that a small group of committed, thoughtful individuals can change the world. In fact, nothing else ever has.’”
The sun is now setting. Harper has been extremely generous with her time. (In fact, the next day, she calls me to make sure I got all I needed for the article.) In conclusion, does Rhoda, oops, Valerie, have anything she wants to add? You bet. “People need to make their contribution even if it’s only a dollar a month. Money is what we can do in America to help with the AIDS crisis. That’s really the truth,” Harper insists, exhibiting a passionate intensity. “When they said it was a gay disease it was easy to compartmentalize and say it’s over there, it’s those people. But it’s all of us. If you don’t look at it that way, you’re in trouble.”
Where is you favorite place to disappear to?
[She giggles] I guess my living room couch, reading.
Where are your four Emmys right now?
They’re in a box.
Give me one of your backstage memories of working on Wildcat with Lucille Ball.
There was a little Yorkie that Paula Stewart always had with her. She played the younger sister. One night while they’re changing for the Mexican number with me and Michael Kidd, the dog stopped and did a little business right in the middle. He stopped and dumped! I was in the wings, and Lucy, she was fabulous, went, “Oh, God! You kids have to do the Mexican hat dance number.” So she said, “Hold it.” She grabbed a broom and dustpan, ran out on stage and picked it up. She looks at the audience and says, “Next time I will read the small print in my contract.” And she went off. I thought that was phenomenal. We then went out and did the number with no fear of stepping in poop.
Do you have a favorite movie of all time?
Life is Beautiful—it’s a favorite but not the favorite.
When they make a movie of your life, whom do you want to play you?
Omigod. Omigod. Geez. Oh my goodness. Who do you think would be good?
Elizabeth Taylor! [She lets out an uproarious laugh.] Julia Louis-Dreyfuss? I don’t know; I was just thinking of a brunette who was funny.
Through the years, you have portrayed many memorable characters. Of which role are you proudest?
Oh, gee. I guess it’s the most recent. Golda. It was a three hour makeup everyday. I was so honored to play her. Now there’s a real combination that we need in the AIDS fight–a visionary who’s practical. [She thinks; ponders.] But Rhoda. It just was so brilliantly written.
What is your favorite episode of Rhoda?
The Wedding. Why? Because it was an hour [episode], we had two weeks on it, and it was with both casts [ Rhoda and Mary Tyler Moore]. It was a reunion for me.
What is your favorite episode of Mary?
Again, I liked when everyone was there. It was the party that Mary gave at which Phyllis’ brother was gay. Bob Moore played the brother. It was called “I’m Not My Brother’s Keeper.” That was the longest laugh in the history of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, maybe up until the Chuckles episode. And Jim [L. Brooks, executive producer] said the laugh was so long they had to cut it in the editing room.
What city in the world do you like to visit the most?
Ohhhhh, Lord. This is hard. I’m thinking of New York, but ah….Rome. I also love Florence; Banff, Canada; and Edmonton, Alberta.
Is there anything you don’t like about fame?
Being recognized when you look terrible. That’s the only thing.
Now that I’m older, no. I’m really looking forward to crone-dom. I am! Ya don’t give a flying “F” about anything. They don’t care about being pleasing, or being liked, or being pretty.
Out of the many people you have met, is there one in particular who stands out who impressed you, influenced you, or inspired you the most?
Joan Holms of The Hunger Project. I’ve never seen anybody with such a deep abiding commitment to the human family and keeping focused on what she does. See, I don’t think I do enough [humanitarianly].
Who would you like to meet that you haven’t met yet?
Morgan Freeman. I think he’s total grace, articulate, heavenly, humanity, , and humble. He’s got it all — and sense of humor.
What do you want on your tombstone?
“She was in the game.” [Valerie pauses.] I love to inspire people. I’d like to be remembered in a way that they would take action. I love to get people moving [to better themselves]. I’d like to be remembered for energy. Pulling people on the dance floor!
HARPER VALLEY PTA
Valerie gives a brief response of people who have touched her life.
Andy Griffith: Haystacks.
Charles Busch: Brilliance.
Lucille Ball: My heart.
Woody Allen: Neurotic.
Jackie Gleason: A Macy’s Day balloon.
Mary Tyler Moore: Elegant.
Estelle Getty: A little treasure.
Rosie O’Donnell: Girlfriend.
Cloris Leachman: Unique.
Ashton Kutcher: Tall.
Nancy Walker: Heaven.
Sarah Jessica Parker: Wonderful.
Vivian Vance: Delectable.
Andy Dick: Hilarious.
Michael Caine: Sensational.
Johnnie Carson: Droll.
Tori Spelling: Sad. Of course, she played the murder victim in a movie of the week I did called, A Friend to Die For, so maybe that’s why she was sad! [Valerie laughs and changes her answer.] Generous. I’ll tell ya why. She took off a ski jacket and gave it to my little daughter. I thought it was sweet.
Ruth Gordon: Oh, my god! The life force itself. [Gordon played the mother of Carlton, the doorman, on Rhoda.] She gave me the best advice I ever got. She said [Val dons a raspy voice], “Valerie, I decided you have a choice in life. You can decide to be old, get old, or get older. A baby’s getting older the same rate as we are. So I picked to get older because older is a process. Old is a destination.”
Natalie Wood: Tender. I had such fun with her. She was so sweet. Profoundly so. A kindred spirit. I really liked her.
Valerie describes herself.
Hopeful. Optimistic. A happy person. Curious.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.