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Friday, August 12, 2011

TGIF Actor Spotlight: Valerie Harper

I thought that I would try something new for the Friday celebration of sitcoms gone by...mainly because I seem to be running out of television shows to talk about (actually, I'm not, I'm just trying to get more bang for my buck).

Instead, for this edition, I thought that I would do a sort of actor profile for this segment, just because I think that there are a lot of actors and actresses that really deserve to have the spotlight on them once in a while.  In the case of this actress, she's had quite a bit of success in the television world, and has played some very memorable characters on screen.  But that was nothing compared to the fight that she would endure during the filming of one of her sitcoms where the end result could have cost her dearly.

But, let's get to that a little later.

Today's TGIF blog entry is all about the talented and lovely Valerie Harper.  Her wittiness and comedic talents helped guide her through a long-lasting career, and she acted in musicals, television, and film.  And might I also add that she looks amazing, even into her early seventies!

Speaking of the early seventies, that was ironically enough the time period where Valerie Harper's name started being heard all throughout living rooms in America, and the rest of the world.

Although she had bit parts in feature films, and had done most of her acting work through stage productions, it wasn't until a casting director noticed her at a small theatre performance that she got her first big break.  In 1970, she was cast in a brand new sitcom set to debut on September 19 of that year.

Although the show was called The Mary Tyler Moore show after its star, Valerie Harper managed to score a really decent role.  She played Rhoda Morgenstern, who was best described as a wise-cracking Jewish New Yorker, who also happened to be Mary Richards' (Moore) best friend who lived in the apartment above her.  The Mary Tyler Moore show became one of the most talked about programs of the 1970's, and ended up running until 1977.  The premise was that Mary Richards was a thirty-year-old independent career woman who didn't need a man to support her or love her to be what she wanted to be.  Something that back in 1970 wasn't exactly shown.  As women's liberation groups started to gain ground, and more and more women were beginning to seek out careers, they looked up to Mary Richards.  They figured that if she could make it, then there was hope for them as well.

What really made the show take off in its first years were the scenes that showed the friendship between Mary and Rhoda, such as in this scene.

No jealousy between them.  No man to come in between them.  They were just really good friends, and they know that whenever one had a problem, they could always talk it out (much to the amusement of the studio audience).

Rhoda's character proved to be a huge hit though.  So huge that in 1974, after the fourth season of The Mary Tyler Moore show, the idea was pitched to give Rhoda a spin-off.  Spin-offs were very risky.  A few managed to have long-lasting success, but the track record for spin-offs wasn't very high.  However, it was a risk that Harper decided to take on.  Valerie Harper left The Mary Tyler Moore show at the conclusion of season four, and in 1974, Rhoda premiered.

Now, that's not to say that Valerie Harper cut all ties with The Mary Tyler Moore show, as Mary Tyler Moore herself guest starred in some episodes of Rhoda, and when The Mary Tyler Moore show ended in 1977, Rhoda was there to say goodbye.  There was even a reunion movie between Mary and Rhoda that aired in early 2000.

Still, when Rhoda premiered on September 9, 1974, it managed to break a record upon its first airing.  Would you believe that when Rhoda first premiered, it debuted at the #1 position on the Neilsen ratings scale?  And that no other television show can boast that distinction?  Ever? 

Eight weeks later, on October 28, 1974, the episode where Rhoda gets married aired, which saw the cast of The Mary Tyler Moore show appear on the show to give their blessings.  Apparently, Rhoda Morgenstern's wedding to Joe Gerard was such a huge success in the ratings that it was the highest rated television episode from 1974-1977 (when the miniseries Roots premiered).  The wedding episode surpassed the ratings for Monday Night Football, and when the episode was over, Howard Cosell reportedly welcomed everyone back to the game as he had not been invited to the wedding.  CBS even started receiving actual wedding gifts to give to the fictional couple.

And that's how you have an impact on the audience.  And that was all because of Valerie Harper's portrayal of Rhoda. 

Although the fictional marriage did not last (and what many fans of Rhoda believe to be the show's 'jump the shark' moment), the fact that the show ran for four and a half seasons did show that Rhoda could have just as much success as Mary Richards.  Part of it came from the fact that the show did have a strong cast backing her up.  In the picture above, you see Nancy Walker as Rhoda's mother, and Julie Kavner (who some may know better as the voice of Marge Simpson) as Rhoda's sister, Brenda.

But Rhoda was the star of the show, and Valerie Harper helped make Rhoda a believable, sympathetic, beloved character for many who grew up watching the show.

I will say though that my first experience with Valerie Harper wasn't with Rhoda or The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Since I wasn't born until the early 1980's, I completely missed both of these shows during their original run.  Though I was lucky enough to witness Valerie's next venture into having sitcom success.  Sadly, the way this sitcom experience ended for her was on a sour note, and it actually caused one of the biggest behind-the-scenes battles reported.

The television sitcom, Valerie, premiered on NBC on the first day of March, 1986.  It starred Valerie as...well...Valerie.  Valerie Hogan was a working mother trying to balance a career with raising three boys, all while her husband worked as an airplane pilot.  Often, this would be the source of much of the conflict and comedy of the sitcom, as Valerie would often have to deal with the situations by herself.  Her sons included girl-crazy David (Jason Bateman), bookish nerd Mark (Jeremy Licht), and the athletic, but incredibly irresponsible Willie (Danny Ponce).  Often times, Valerie would often end up in the middle of it all, and would be left to try and sort out the various problems of the boys.  When Valerie gave David a job at the antique place where she worked, David's laziness and nonchalant attitude for the job really gave her a headache.  When Mark ended up mooning the school assembly, Valerie was mortified and furious.  And when Willie started developing a potty mouth, she was forced to wash his mouth out with soap to get him to stop his attitude.

It was basically a day-to-day challenge every day for Valerie.

The show itself was a family comedy, but I don't think it was as preachy as other family sitcoms were.  In fact, looking back on older episodes, I thought that the humour really was quite good.  Valerie Harper was brilliant in the role, and she had one-liners that could stun almost anyone.  The lessons learned in the show were presented realistically, and without any sort of sugary sweetness.  There was some slapstick comedy, but it didn't overshadow the main point of the show, which is what Valerie Harper wanted.

In fact, an episode called "Bad Timing" aired in early 1987, and focused on the issue of teen sex.  The episode was presented candidly, and even showcased the first prime-time use of the word 'condom'.  That episode was later released on home video, specifically for teachers and health educators to show to students in schools, but I can't really say that I remember watching it in health class...anyone out there who did?  I'd love to hear from you!

For the first two seasons of Valerie, the show followed that formula without any concern, and ratings were quite good.  However, Lorimar Telepictures (the company that produced Valerie) and Miller/Boyett productions wanted to make some changes to the program.  Because of Jason Bateman's rising star power, the company wanted to move the focus of the show to the younger cast members, instead of making it a family show with family based issues.  As well, due to the recent success of Perfect Strangers (another Lorimar and Miller/Boyett show that premiered just three weeks after Valerie), the company wanted to add more slapstick comedy in place of the more realistic humour that Valerie had during its first two seasons. 

By then, Valerie had managed to obtain some creative control for the show (considering that the show was named after her, the decision made sense), and she vehemently disagreed with the idea, and wanted to continue the show the way that it was.  When the show went on hiatus during the summer of 1987, both sides continued to battle over what was best for the show, but neither side seemed to budge.

So when the decision was made to write Valerie Hogan (and Valerie Harper) off the show, needless to say, it came as a huge shock.  Not just to Valerie Harper, but to television viewers in general.  Very few shows continued on after the main character left the show, and the outlook for Valerie was not so good. 

The decision was made though to get a new female lead.  Sandy Duncan was brought onto the show as Sandy Hogan, Valerie's sister-in-law, and when season three premiered, the opening was changed accordingly.

Now, granted, that was the 1990 opening of The Hogan Family, which was the series THIRD name change.  When the show came back in 1987 after Valerie Harper's firing, the show was known as Valerie's Family.

It was explained that sometime during the hiatus on 1987, that the character of Valerie Hogan was killed off in a car accident (that's ONE way of making sure that she would never come back), and that Sandy would be coming in to help raise the three boys.  What made it kind of peculiar was that in Sandy's introductory episode, the kids didn't seem all that broken-up about Valerie's death.  They even got into a food fight!  It just didn't seem to ring all that true until it was explained that Valerie had died six months ago.

The real grieving episode didn't come until a few weeks later.  In an episode specifically designed to teach families about having an escape route in case of a fire, the Hogan family household is severely damaged by fire.  The entire second floor and attic was a complete write-off, and the family lost quite a few belongings.  One of the more touching scenes in that fire episode was when David entered the charred remains of his bedroom and picked up a seared photograph, burned beyond recognition.  Although we cannot see the image inside, David's reaction makes it implied that the photograph was of his deceased mother, Valerie.  Sandy happens to witness the scene, and David and Sandy embrace each other with tears in their eyes.

Now, I'm not doubting that the scene (and for that matter the episode) was not moving.  It was.  And I am certainly not downplaying the acting ability of Sandy Duncan.  She brought her own stamp to the show and did a fantastic job.  And the show ended up running until 1991, so it was proof that the show could survive having a key player leave the show.

Truth be told though, there was a sense of hollowness in the fact that for this episode to take place, we had to kill off Valerie, and that's a decision that I never really agreed with.  Looking back on the whole show's run, some of my favourite episodes were the ones where Valerie was still in them.  Sandy was perky and cute, but Valerie was real.  And that's to the credit of the actress playing her.

Instead, it seemed as though the producers had the last laugh on Valerie Harper.  They killed off her character, burned any and all remnants of her in the fire episode and made out as if she had never existed.  And I don't care what people say.  It just didn't seem right to treat Valerie that way.  There would have been no show if she hadn't have kicked it off, and deep down, I think everyone knew it.

Valerie proved that she did have one more ace up her sleeve though.  In 1988, she countersued Lorimar for breaching her contract after they attempted a lawsuit of their own for claiming that she illegally broke her contractual agreements for the show.  Here's a news report on the story.

And,'s the end result.

Now, my honest opinion is that I'm happy that Valerie stood up and fought this.  Some may disagree with me on this point, but I really do think that Valerie ended up getting a raw deal, and here's why.

Suppose that I got the opportunity to take this blog and turn it into my own television show (not that it would actually happen to me, but let's just play along here and say that it did).  I would want to have as much control over the production of the show as I possibly could.  I would certainly like to have brainstorming sessions from others over what ideas would work and what ones I should forget about, but I would like to think that I would have the opportunity to stay as close as I could to my original vision.  So for someone to come in and start making changes to my own work would bother me a lot. 

Keep in mind that when I describe the word 'changes', I don't necessarily mean people coming in to offer ideas on how to improve it.  I'm all for constructive criticism and hearing ways in which I can attract more viewers.  The problem arises when so many changes come at once that it becomes less like my vision, and more like someone else's.  I think that's why I can understand why Valerie was so frustrated with Lorimar.  She had a vision for a sitcom that really seemed to be doing well, and that people really seemed to take to.  Clearly one of those 'if it ain't broken, don't fix it' scenarios.  Lorimar ended up wanting to change the show so much that it wasn't what Valerie wanted at all.

And if you can't believe in a new vision, it's hard to give your all towards it.

There's a lot of conflicting theories behind what really happened to make Valerie leave, but it seems the one that is widely believed is that Valerie was in fact fired from the show due to the conflict she had with Lorimar.  Regardless of what it was, I know that if someone logged onto my blog and told me exactly how I should run it, I would not take too kindly to it, and I'd probably stand up for myself.  Just like Valerie did for herself.

And in the end, she was given vindication to the tune of nearly two million dollars.

That's why I probably admire Valerie Harper more than other actresses in the business.  She has the talent, she has the looks...and she has major guts.

Valerie Harper, I salute you.

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