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September 29, 2007.
these decades later, the woman who played one of the most beloved TV
characters of all time still arouses
old Jewish ladies grab my cheeks and say, 'sweetheart, darling, they tell me
you're not Jewish. Say it isn't so,'" says Valerie Harper, who played the
insecure, wise-cracking, never-the-bride Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore
Show and in her own successful spin-off series in the seventies (written
and produced by many of the same people now associated with The Simpsons).
The role, over eight years, won her four Emmys.
truth is, if you go back far enough, we're all Jewish," Harper says, though
her own background is a mix of Irish, Scottish, English, Protestant,
Catholic and even Canadian on her mother's side (she currently declares
herself an agnostic Zionist, and lives with her Italian-American husband in
no problem being so deeply identified with such a classic role, and often
even being mistaken for the actual character itself by an adoring America.
constantly recognized and having her cheeks squeezed and hands shook, she
says, "It's like having family and friends I didn't know I had. There is
something about walking through an airport and faces lighting up like
they're seeing a relative that they like. It's so beautiful."
the series that made her famous pushed the envelope and became an important
TV landmark, Harper's latest role, as the lead in the film Golda's
Balcony, shows great departures from her signature character, as well as
some extremely close similarities.
is based on the Broadway play (the longest-running one-woman show in
Broadway history, originated by Tovah Feldshuh) and on the unique life of
Israeli premier Golda Meir.
is winning raves for her sharp yet nuanced portrayal, unveiling a delicious
new seasoning on her acting chops (kosher chops, of course).
was Jewish, and I think it kind of paved the way for me to play Golda," she
says. "I toured in the play for a year before we did the movie. It's a
marvelous play. I had seen it but didn't think about doing it. My child is
out of college now and on her own, so I thought, well maybe I could tour the
Meir, as both a character and a "character," is what drew Harper to the
project. Meir was Russian-born, but grew up in America; specifically
Milwaukee, a town not exactly known for its Jewish majority. She was a
schoolteacher who, through a series of incredible twists of fate, became the
leader of Israel at a most crucial time. It's a story that would sound
unbelievable if it were fiction.
says, "Golda is that rare and powerful, brilliant combination of a visionary
and a rubber-meets-the-road activist. Often, activists shouldn't govern.
They should often just roll up their sleeves and do the work. Dr. Martin
Luther King was one of them. They don't come along often. I think Golda is
in that area. A lot of visionaries are not good in the trenches. Golda,
though, was very plain, and she saw to the core of an issue."
woman who governed Israel at an especially difficult time in its
always-difficult history was more than just multi-faceted and complex. She
handled her enormous tasks with grace, practicality and even humor.
you think of what she gave up in terms of her family," Harper says, "She and
[her husband] Morris loved each other very much. There is this song from
and Dolls called, 'I'll Marry The Man Today and Change His Ways
Tomorrow.' Great song, bad advice. I think Golda thought that, at
twenty-three, heading for Palestine in 1921. She thought that Morris would
get the fire of commitment that she had. That he will really become a
Zionist, he will know we must do this.
he thought, I'll marry her, we'll go there for a while, and then she'll be
tired and I'll schlep her back to Denver. He was very educated, an
intellectual, and a lover of classical music, and here she was, this
political firebrand. He couldn't stand that she had to do what she had to
do, and she was not about to come back to America. She just couldn't do it.
So he stayed and they were always together in terms of the family, even
though they were no longer living as husband and wife.
wasn't promiscuous, but she had long, passionate love affairs, often with
married men. They were strong, powerful males dedicated to the founding of
the state, which was where she operated. She operated in the company of men,
as an equal, as a real powerful force, at a time where women just weren't
play and the film are enlightened by Meir's dry sense of humor, which, of
course, Harper can handle with ease.
says, "One of my favorite lines Meir says is, 'I can understand why the
Arabs want us dead, but do they really expect us to cooperate?' And lines
like, 'Don't be humble. You're not that great.'
"[Israeli military general David] Ben-Gurion used to say, 'I want to
introduce you to Golda Meir, the best man in my cabinet.' And it pissed her
off. She didn't like it. When asked what it felt like to be a female
minister in the cabinet, she said, 'I don't know. I've never been a man.'
She never thought she was a feminist, but she walked the walk, even if she
didn't have the label.
"Clearly, she was one of the great individuals of the twentieth century,
male or female. She didn't smile a lot, but occasionally she did. In this
piece, there is not a lot of room for it, except for where she's back in the
past. She had this very powerful centered thing, with no apology. She would
look you in the eye and tell you the truth. I always admired her and
respected her, and realized that she was American. I was always proud that
she sounded like us. But not only us, she sounded like the middle of the
country. Right out of Wisconsin. I didn't know her sense of humor was so
incredibly sharp. Incredibly witty, without trying to be funny and
hilarious, because she was just telling the truth."
where the obvious comparison with Rhoda comes in.
says, "Rhoda was patterned after my stepmother, who was Italian, Angela
Posillico, who passed a couple of years ago. Adorable. She had that real
chip-on-your-shoulder, cute feisty, New York way about her. And
Green, who was really Joanna Greenburg from Brooklyn. A very close friend. I
picked people I loved to hear in my mind's ear, to make Rhoda come out
right. Rhoda embraced her Bronxness and her total Everywoman thing."
Harper claims that she is a "failed ballerina," she had made her way to to the
boards of Broadway (she danced in Li'l Abner, and in Wildcat
with Lucille Ball). Also on stage, she cut her comedic teeth with cutting-edge
comedy troupes (including Second City).
for a few commercials and segments of Love, American Style, she was
unknown on television, until an audition came along that changed the course
of her life.
[the role of Rhoda] very easily," she says. "I was immediately given the
job. I was driving home, ten minutes from the audition room, and my
then-husband, Dick [Schaal, the actor], was out on the lawn yelling, ‘You got
it! You got it!’ It was incredible, because I had gone out for commercials
and had twelve callbacks that failed. It seemed too easy, too painless. And
yet it was the most important thing for my career."
the self-depreciating New Yawkah was not originally created
with the same
persona that we eventually grew to love.
was supposed to be Mary's nemesis," she says. "Rhoda was supposed to be
jealous of Mary, but she got to adore her. They became best friends. Mary is
who you wish you were, Rhoda is who you probably are, and Phyllis [Cloris
Leachman, playing the spoiled, married neighbor] is who you are afraid
had written Mary as a divorcée, starting again. And the network said no. So
they said, okay, we'll make her single, and wanting a relationship but
working on her career. Rhoda, because of her indoctrination from [her
mother] Ida, was supposed to be 'Sadie, Sadie, Married Lady' and was upset
about it. She had jobs, but Mary had a career. That was the difference.
writer] Treva Silverman wrote two of my four Emmy shows. She is incredibly
funny. She, like other women, were brought along by Jim [Brooks] and Allen
[Burns] on purpose because they used to say, 'we write women well, but there
is an area that we don't do: that nail polish and panty hose stuff. There is
a world of comedy in my wife's purse.'
"Remember the bridesmaid dress show? Men wouldn't think of that. All of us
have crawled into an ugly dress for our girlfriends. They're all kind of
generically ugly. Straight guys don't think of that."
the advent of the Rhoda spinoff,
millions of viewers of all backgrounds could
kvell at the Jewish humor. Take this
for instance (please): Rhoda asks her über-Jewish mother Ida [Nancy Walker]
why she gave both her and her sister the same middle name: Rhoda Faye and
Ma, if you like the name Faye so much, why didn't you just name one of us
I didn't like it that much.
Jewish-American influence on television – both behind and in front of the
camera – was evident from the very beginning, it was only in the seventies
when they could actually first admit it and say the J word out loud.
"It was quite an interesting time in America," Harper says, "and I think the
show reflected it without being politically correct. We were never really an
'issue' show, but we sure were about people bumping into each other. It was
really a family – a work family. It was such a wonderful show and such an
opportunity to act and do great material."
course, while many old TV series grow stale and dated (especially from the
seventies), The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda remain – with
the exception of a few pantsuits and hairdos – perennially hilarious;
they're the retro shows you laugh with and not at.
Harper says, "The show is as funny now as it was then – because of the
writing. I asked Allen about it, and he thinks that a lot of kids today are
writing TV from other TV shows. He saw plays. [Writers like] Danny Arnold
and Jim Brooks went to the theatre. They would see and read plays, they
would know about character development, climax, resolve, being true to the
character. They learned from playwriting. Those were little plays, and
that's why they hold up, I think."
far as Harper herself, she is holding up quite well. A few years back, she
threw her schmata in the ring for president of the Screen Actors'
Guild, but lost to Melissa Gilbert (Rhoda vs. Half-Pint?). She also appeared
on Broadway more recently in Tales of the Allergist's Wife and had
starred in a number of well-received TV movies and series appearances
(including That 70s Show).
she is firmly placed in the here and now (she is involved in The Hunger
Project), she is not computer literate and does not have email. However, her
reluctance to get with the fad is turning her emoticon from sad to happy.
She says, "I have to. I want to come into this. It's really wrong to be
living in this time and not being on the computer."
she knows "it's not going to play opposite Spiderman 3," she is
certain that her Meir biopic will find a dedicated audience.
prepared to play the role with great respect and great trepidation about
doing Golda proud," she says. "In Israel, Golda was actually hated for a
long time. Now, people are looking at her as a national treasure. With
distance, history starts to get clearer about people."
out a Mary Tyler Moore rerun and see if this does not ring exactly true.
us Let us know what you
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