For no special reason or anniversary celebration I share this humble tribute to Valerie Harper and her Rhoda, a character I – and millions of others – have adored since she first stepped into Mary Richards’ apartment…
It is September 19, 1970 when Mary Richards moves into 119 North Weatherly in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Escorted by building manager and friend, Phyllis Lindstrom and her daughter Bess, Mary steps into the space and marvels at what she sees. It’s perfect! A stylish, one-room apartment.
There’s only one little problem…and it’s right outside the window. As Phyllis opens the curtains to show Mary the balcony and view, the “problem” is there washing the windows…Rhoda. And she thinks that’s HER apartment! In case you’ve lived under a rock for…forty years or so…Rhoda is another tenant who lives in the much more cramped attic of the stylish house.
With Mary’s help, Rhoda steps in from the freezing cold and the two women officially meet for the first time…
Mary: So you’re…ah…Rhoda…?
Rhoda: …Morgenstern. Right.
Mary: And I’m Mary Richards.
Rhoda: ah…hello…now get out of my apartment!
Perfectly delivered with that distinct accent that sounds like so many people I know – da Bronx! And so, along with Mary, we too meet Rhoda. And this is for her and the woman who brought her to life.
Rhoda and Mary:
At the end of that pilot episode, both Mary and Rhoda admit they’re having a hard time hating each other and aside from an occasional argument, which all friends have, they become best friends forever. Not since Lucy and Ethel have we seen two women bond like these two in a situation comedy. Mary and Rhoda are a wonderful blend of heart and humor. Two distinct personalities, opposites in many respects – one the measure of politeness, shy and soft-spoken, the other a brash and honest ethnic woman with lightning-fast humor. Together they are all of us and our best friends forever.
From an episodes titled, “Put On a Happy Face” (season three) this exchange says it all about their relationship:
Mary is home with the flu after falling and hurting her ankle leaving her unable to walk…
Rhoda: I’m sorry you’re so down, kid.
Mary: I’m not so down. (cough)
Rhoda: Oh yeah, you are…Admit it, Mary…suddenly your life got crummy. (Shrugs) It’ll get better. It has to…you’re not the crummy life type. Truly. I am the crummy life type. You’re just on a lousy streak and I happen to be on a terrific streak. But soon things will be back to normal again…tomorrow you’ll meet a crowned head of Europe and marry…I will have a fat attack, eat 300 peanut butter cups and die. That’s just the way it is.
That is the way it is, for four glorious, laughter-filled seasons on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Despite the fact that Mary and Rhoda come from different worlds and cultures, in a sense, they laugh together, they cry together, they have pre- and post-date discussions, compare men stories, family problems, work woes. And we live through it all with them.
These two characters are brought to life by two extraordinary actors who, as their television counterparts, changed each other, changed television and changed us. For generations of women and girls, of which I was one, these two single, happy, accomplished, caring women were who we could all aspire to be. I’ve nothing new to say though – we have always all been on the exact same page here…
Rhoda and Phyllis:
I challenge anyone and everyone to come up with a greater twosome in delivering barbs. Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman as Rhoda and Phyllis – the stuff of legend, as far as I’m concerned.
Some of my favorite scenes from the first few seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show were the ones featuring Phyllis and Rhoda building manager and tenant who each have Mary Richards as best friend and buffer.
These two really dislike each other – although, and here’s the miracle, we never dislike either of them. Unlike Rhoda and her down-to-earth, street-smart, quick wit, Phyllis is snooty, snobbish and spoiled and her barbs against her adversary, most often have to do with the fact SHE is married and Rhoda isn’t. But oh so funny! I couldn’t not mention them as a duo – although individually few were ever better – as comedians or as actors.
Rhoda and Ida (Ma):
From episode, “A Girl’s Best Mother Is Not Her Friend” (Season two)
Ida Morgenstern comes to Minneapolis for a visit and drives Rhoda insane. That’s the premise that never varies. But in this particular season two episode it is even more so. Rhoda’s mother is played by the incomparable Nancy Walker, by the way – always a welcomed sight… and sound.
Anyway – Since the typical Jewish mother, an ace at dispensing guilt and barbs herself – and her not-so-typical Jewish daughter fight about everything, Ida gets ideas about improving her relationship with Rhoda when she hears Mary speaking to her own mother as if they were friends. Later, Ida spends time with Phyllis and her daughter, Bess, which further sets her wheels turning as Phyllis and Bess often wear matching outfits. Well then, why can’t she and Rhoda be best friends, Ida thinks? And hilarity ensues as she drives Rhoda further and further over the edge with her “friends” schemes, which includes buying the same dress as Rhoda to show how close they are…
As you can see from the picture, Rhoda is mortified. And later, trying her best to be thirty-something, Ida wears a new, hip pantsuit…without a bra. Another hilarious moment and Rhoda’s final straw as she turns the tables on her mother “go upstairs right now and put some clothes on!”
Nancy Walker appears in only a handful of episodes of the MTM Show as Ida Morgenstern but all are memorable. She and Harper are perfectly suited as mother and daughter – sight, sound and attitude.
Rhoda and Chocolate:
[staring at a piece of candy she is about to eat]
“I don’t know why I should even bother to eat this. I should just apply it directly to my hips.”
That’s the most quoted line from The Mary Tyler Moore Show – ever.
From the very first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, mentioned above, one of Rhoda’s most endearing qualities is her self-deprecating humor. It’s probably why she’s the character we most identify with.
“It’s a magnifying mirror! Mary, why didn’t you warn me? I thought it was a relief map of the moon. When they sell those magnifying mirrors they should include a printed suicide note.”
How great is that?!
And the greatness is due to Valerie Harper’s portrayal of this character. Her timing – impeccable, as I’ve already noted. Her physicality – wonderful. Her heart – immense, because despite the barbs and insults her warmth always comes through. Proof of Harper’s talent is in the fact the series’ writers and creators always intended Rhoda to be frumpy but…she’s gorgeous! None of the sweatpants or hair rollers she was prone to sport while at home could disguise it. Yet she was so brilliant at delivering her lines, so in sync with the character and, we must note, the writing and characterization so well-rounded that we believe her.
And then a wonderfully warm episode happens in season three, “Rhoda the Beautiful” because Valerie Harper’s beauty had to be formally addressed so the continued jokes could make sense. That’s my take, anyway.
“Rhoda the beautiful” opens with a conversation between Mary and Rhoda centering on Rhoda’s constant dieting and the fact she joined a weight-loss group. Reluctantly admitting she met her weight-loss goal, Rhoda is forced by Mary to take a good look at herself in the mirror – and when she does, she sees the “now” good-looking girl. Self-confidence doesn’t come easy for many of us.
Happily, despite Rhoda’s recognition of her new and improved looks, she doesn’t lose her attitude and humor …and she still recognizes the important things in life…
Mary: “Oh Rhoda, chocolate doesn’t solve anything.”
Rhoda: “No Mare, cottage cheese solves nothing; chocolate can do it all!”
One of the greatest truths ever spoken on television – chocolate CAN do it all!
And by the way, when Phyllis walks in and sees Rhoda’s new, slimmer self that day, it is then that Rhoda faces her truth – the fact that she’s so uncomfortable with compliments. You see, she was chosen as a semi-finalist in a Hempel’s Department Store beauty contest – where she works as a window dresser – and tells both Mary and Phyllis together.
Expecting Phyllis to come back with one of her usual zingers – “what were they thinking, YOU in a beauty contest!” or some such thing – Rhoda is outraged, truly angered by Phyllis’ sincere, “congratulations, you look fantastic.” “Thanks a lot, Phyllis” Rhoda replies in anger as she storms out, “I can get that sort of thing from Mary.”
And later…guess what happens…
A very touching scene occurs when Rhoda shares with Mary that she’s won the beauty contest. Rhoda is Ms. Hempel! And she can only say it after visibly grappling with herself…so as not to cast that kind of spotlight on the frumpy girl from The Bronx, but Rhoda the beautiful has no choice but to accept herself as such.
“They were all applauding for me…I couldn’t believe it…me…after 32 years…ME.”
Of course, Mary is delighted for her. Then the friends share some brownies to celebrate. Chocolate could do it all!
Rhoda and Men:
This is very similar to “Rhoda and Chocolate,” I must say. She’s impulsive, self-deprecating. Different than Mary – just as she consistently says Mary can eat anything without gaining weight, so can she get men without so much as trying.
Rhoda: Introducing herself to a man in Mary’s apartment: “Allow me to introduce myself, I’m another person in the room – Rhoda Morgenstern.”
But she never stops trying to find Mr. Right. Whatever it takes. Just one more reason why we love her.
Mary: (when Rhoda insists she look at a new car) If I know I can’t have it, why look?
Rhoda: If I felt that way I’d never go to a Paul Newman movie.
From Minneapolis to New York:
In another season three episode, Rhoda knocks on Mary’s door just as she returns from a visit to New York and tells Mary she’s leaving Minneapolis. That’s it. The time has come and the sadness for Mary and for us is real – the sadness one feels when you lose the familiar, the dependable. As Rhoda packs and prepares for the move, Mary refuses to believe her best friend is really leaving. After all, Rhoda’s M.O. has always been to make spur-of-the-moment decisions she later regrets. But it turns out to be true this time, it seems – Mary allowing herself to admit it at the last moment, as the two go out to dinner the night before the planned move.
But wait – during dinner, as the friends express their affection for each other, Rhoda realizes she can’t leave – as much as she loves and misses New York, all of her friends – Mary most of all – are in Minneapolis. She suddenly changes her mind. PHEW! Like Mary we refuse to believe Rhoda is really leaving – true even as I watched this episode last week while I was transported back to my childhood to visit with cherished friends. She just belongs there with those people! And… she doesn’t leave. Not then anyway.
Valerie Harper returns as Rhoda on the MTM Show for another season, another year of wonderful memories made at 119 North Weatherly in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The year after, however, Rhoda does leave for New York City. To stay. But there’s no sadness to be had for she starts her own life on her own show, continuing to make us laugh for five more years (from 1974 to 1978).
Valerie Harper’s popularity and television audiences’ affection for Rhoda have never diminished. This coupling of actor and character remains one of the truest and most beloved. Here is how it started – from a 2002 interview on the Larry King Show, Valerie talks about, “How I became Rhoda.”
I can think of no more worthy accolade or recognition that the love her fans have shown Valerie Harper through the years – we absolutely adore Rhoda and the woman who brought her to life. This post is my small way of showing my affection – for both. Not an easy one to write, I might add.
Aside from our affection and gratitude, Valerie also received her share of statuettes and nominations for the role – a total of eight consecutive Emmy Award nominations. She took home the Emmy in 1971, 1972 and 1973 for the part in the MTM Show and in 1975 as lead actress for portraying the character on the first year of her own show. Here she is accepting her first Emmy Award for the 1970-1971 season (preceded by Ed Asner accepting his for playing Lou Grant). She is presented the award by Lucille Ball and Jack Benny, by the way. Not too shabby.
And I end with this…
There’s a piece of “wall art,” I guess you would call it, that sits on Rhoda’s apartment wall…etc. To me it always meant, “I want to do it all – even that which I’ve yet to consider.” As out-spoken as Rhoda is, she never quite says everything – or, more appropriately, she always has more to say. I see the distinctive wave of her hands as she speaks as I type this…etc. It’s hopeful, covering all the bases, open and honest – like Rhoda herself. The etc. deserves its due. And that’s how I felt writing this post – hoping to write an apt tribute to a character I love turns out nothing more than a mish-mosh of memories – an etc. for all that’s left unsaid – but I leave it as it is.
We love you, kid.