The sad news about Valerie Harper’s battle with terminal brain cancer has me thinking about the incredible power broadcast television used to have. How else to explain the massive outpouring of love and support from millions of people for Harper at this very challenging time? After all, her multiple Emmy Award-winning portrayal of Rhoda Morgenstern, the iconic role she played in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spin-off “Rhoda” from 1970-1978, ended a considerable 35 years ago, and while she has been consistently busy and visible since that time, she has never again enjoyed such phenomenal success. Word of her illness has brought back a flood of memories for so many of us who enjoyed both shows during their first runs. All these years later, it really does feel as if a cherished friend is in terrible trouble.
Ask anyone who is old enough to clearly remember television in the ‘70s – the last full decade of unchallenged three-network dominance – and he or she will tell you about the many wonderful broadcast shows of that time. Their titles are well-known today, even to people who weren’t around for their original telecasts: “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “M*A*S*H,” “Sanford and Son,” “Rhoda,” “Maude,” “The Waltons,” “The Brady Bunch,” “The Partridge Family,” “Room 222,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” “The Odd Couple,” “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “Three’s Company,” “Family,” “Eight is Enough,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “One Day at a Time” and so on. The characters in these shows, and the actors who portrayed them, were hugely significant in their day. Rhoda Morgenstern is an excellent example of a character who really mattered then and consequently still matters now.
Today, some of those ‘70s shows are better known than others, and a few are enjoying renewed respect and appreciation as important cultural touchstones. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which introduced Harper to the television audience, is certainly one of the programs at the top of that list. “Mary” was a game-changer because of its sophisticated depiction of independent women in prime-time television entertainment, and it was one of the first great character-driven comedies that did not rely on physical comedy or forced punch lines to generate laughs. The enduring popularity of this show has a lot to do with the fact that it was first-rate television. But another big reason why “Mary” and so many other fine series from the now-distant past remain so loved so many decades later is that so many people simultaneously appreciated them during their first runs.
That’s where the widespread response to Harper’s shocking announcement of her illness comes into play. The two series that endeared her to millions of people weren’t just popular television shows. They were programs that people shared in a way that is simply no longer possible in this era of hundreds of networks, thousands of video entertainment options and seemingly endless audience fragmentation.
The strength of the shared viewing experience was especially true of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” because it ran on Saturday, then as now a night often designated for social activity rather than quiet times at home. CBS legendarily defied that expectation, creating a Saturday night lineup that for millions of people was the entertainment highlight of the week. How could it not be, given the shows it offered, including “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show” and, especially, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”? For many of us, young and old alike, that weekly visit to 119 North Weatherly Ave., the address of the multi-family house that was home to Mary Richards, Rhoda Morgenstern and Phyllis, Lars and Bess Lindstrom, as well as the WJM-TV newsroom, where Mary worked alongside Lou Grant, Murray Slaughter, Ted Baxter and, eventually, Sue Ann Nivens, was an incomparable source of pure joy. The opportunity to spend time with these people made staying home on Saturday night something special.
For the first four seasons of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” when Harper was in the cast, the relationship between Mary and Rhoda became one of the most powerful friendships in the history of television. It was so strong that it remained unbroken when Harper left the show in 1974 and brought Rhoda to New York City for her spin-off. Mary, on her show, and Rhoda, on hers, would refer to each other for years to come.
And speaking of “Rhoda,” which actually enjoyed higher ratings than “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” many people have forgotten that the one-hour episode in which Rhoda married tough-guy Joe Girard was at the time of its October 28, 1974 telecast the second highest rated episode of a scripted television series in the history of the medium. Fifty-two million people tuned in to see the single friend with whom they had spent so many Saturday nights marry the love of her life.
Harper’s decision to go public with her diagnosis and educate people is laudable. But her decision to take a common-sense approach to what may soon be the end of her life is truly inspiring. Rhoda may have been a role model in the’70s, but Valerie is the role model now. We’re better off for having known both of them.