Turning a Jewish stereotype into a real woman

Valerie Harper paved the way for everyone from Mrs. Maisels to Rachel Green.

September 1, 2019 14:01
2 minute read.
Turning a Jewish stereotype into a real woman

Actress Mary Tyler Moore (L) greets co-star actress Valerie Harper as they accept the Ground Breaking Show award for their series "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" during a taping of the second annual TV Land Awards in Hollywood March 7, 2004. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Without Valerie Harper – who, ironically, was not Jewish – there would be no Mrs. Maisel, no Fran Fine (aka The Nanny), no Rebecca Bloom from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, no Rachel Green from Friends.

That’s because Harper changed the television landscape irrevocably and for better with her unforgettable portrayal of Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary Tyler Moore’s Jewish neighbor and best friend, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Harper took the Jewish stereotype that Rhoda was meant to embody – the wisecracking, loud, overweight and perpetually single foil to Moore’s WASPy goddess – and turned it on its head, highlighting Rhoda’s charm, vulnerability, wit and brains. America fell in love with Rhoda – and how could you not? She became a vital presence in her own right and not just a sidekick, winning three Emmys for Best Supporting Actress on the Mary Tyler Moore Show and getting her own spinoff, Rhoda, which ran for five seasons and won her another an Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Television Series in 1975.

It wasn’t just that she made Rhoda terribly attractive in a different way from Moore’s sleek perfection, it was that she got Americans to identify with this Jewish character in a way that no one had before. She wasn’t just some weirdo spouting Yiddishisms, but a real woman, dealing with issues around family, men, career and weight that millions of viewers could relate to. By playing a Jewish character in such a compelling way, she transcended all the cliches and made Rhoda into a person who happened to be Jewish and, in a small way, changed the way America viewed Jews in general, and in particular, Jewish women.

It’s no coincidence that you probably haven’t heard much about Harper since her series Rhoda (which, not coincidentally, made as star out of Julie Kavner, who painted a different but similarly affecting portrait of a young Jewish woman as Rhoda’s sister on the show, and who went on to voice Marge in The Simpsons) went off the air. She was typecast after that, and while there were many parts for ethnic men in that era dominated by actors such as Judd Hirsch, Dustin Hoffman and Woody Allen, in spite of Harper’s breakthrough as Rhoda, there weren’t as many opportunities for women.

She kept working but often in the thankless neglected wife and girlfriend roles in forgettable shows and movies such as Blame It On Rio. In 2000, she returned to the role of Rhoda for a television movie, Mary and Rhoda, that got lukewarm reviews.

In 2007, Harper  starred in a film version of Golda’s Balcony, a long-running off-Broadway play, in which she played Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. Harper came the Eilat Film Festival with the movie and spoke movingly about her feelings for Israel, calling, “the creation of this state one of the crowning achievements of the 20th century.”

Speaking at the Television Academy Foundation in 2009 about playing Rhoda, she said, “I can’t tell you enough how much fun it was and how supported I felt.”

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