Valerie Harper hasn’t commented yet on the death of her pal Mary Tyler Moore. I suspect she’s grieving. They were very, very close for 47 years. Harper was so upset that she even cancelled a Facebook announcement scheduled for Wednesday night about a short film she made that’s going to film festivals.
A few years ago, Harper wrote a terrific memoir called “I, Rhoda,” which is on amazon and elsewhere and worth a read. Here’s what she wrote about the day she met Mary at her audition for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”:
Mary had just come from a ballet lesson (like me, she first trained as a dancer). She wore a pale rose Helanca turtleneck over white trousers. After I gushed about how wonderful she was on The Dick Van Dyke Show, I took a step back and looked her over. She was as thin as a reed. “Look at you in white pants without a long jacket to cover your behind,” I said. (Hell would have to freeze over before I would go out with my top tucked in and my butt in white.) The guys in the room burst out laughing. I had already become Rhoda the Self-Deprecating.
On Mary at work: She was always on time and always knew her lines. She was a remarkable leader but never acted like “the star.” As Mary Richards, Mary was always “straighting” for the rest of us, who played more flamboyant characters. She would suggest to the writers, “Why don’t you give that joke to Val? It’s more of a Rhoda line.”
On breaks between scenes, Mary often did needlepoint. A real expert, she turned out beautiful pieces for her home: pillows and chair seats. When she sewed, she wore tiny reading glasses that made her look like a glamorous young granny. The first year of the show, she needle pointed each of the cast members a lovely rectangular pillow with our initials and the signature Mary Richards beret dangling off one of the letters. She must have used up all of her weekends sewing these surprise gifts. Another treasured gift from Mary was a long gold latchkey with the inscription 119 Wetherly, our fictitious address on the show. Ever the generous girl.
While Mary imbued her on-screen alter ego with much of her own personality, Mary Richards was truly a created character. The real-life Mary was droller, wittier, and much more sophisticated. Mary Tyler Moore’s humor was dry. Mary Richards’s was sweet and slightly square. Although Mary smoked, she refused ever to smoke on the show. She was adamant that she not pass along her bad habit to anyone in the audience. “I’m hooked,” she’d say. “I don’t want to help hook anyone else.” She was ahead of her time with a keen awareness and sense of responsibility.