Valerie Harper's motto: stay active

Now starring in a Broadway comedy, the actress's next role may be chairman of SAG

Valerie Harper decided to take Ruth Gordon's advice. Ms. Harper explains that before the Oscar-winner died, she told TV's "Rhoda," "You can't choose not to age. But you can choose to get old, or get older. Old is a destination. Older is a process." Harper adds, "I chose to get older."

And now, the four-time Emmy winner has accepted a new challenge: starring in Charles Nusch's Broadway comedy, "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife."

Of the central character in a contemporary urban fable about facing life's disappointments, Harper notes that "I love her engagement with life. Even in the depths of her depression, she's trying to talk about the great books. And, it's wonderfully written.

"Even in this very vulnerable, white-knuckle moment of her life, the humor keeps us involved with her."

Admirers of Harper's work as Rhoda Morgenstern, the humorously neurotic best friend on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," may have been skeptical about the decision to spin off her character after the fifth year into a show of her own, set in New York.

"What made it so much easier was that Mary told me, straight out, that if it didn't work, Rhoda moves back to Minneapolis. This was not only selfless, it was very calming." "Rhoda" ran for four seasons, ending in 1978.

A different type of television project soon followed. Directed by Paul Newman, the 1979 Hallmark Hall of Fame drama "The Shadow Box" starred Harper as the wife of a terminally ill man.

"Paul was one of the most supportive, enthusiastic, thrilling directors I've ever worked with. It was the first time in my career, and it has not happened since, where you rehearsed in the place where you eventually filmed."

The late James Broderick portrayed her husband. "I asked Jimmy if any of his kids were going to follow him into acting, and he said he thought that his little one, Matthew, had a lot of talent!"

Her own talent also showed up early. After taking dance lessons, and completing college studies, Harper joined Radio City Music Hall's corps de ballet, but soon gravitated to the Broadway boards. Early jobs included chorus work in "Wildcat," starring Lucille Ball, and "Take Me Along," with Jackie Gleason. "I would stand in the wings and watch them. I learned a lot by osmosis. Lucy was incredible. They were both great at embracing the audience."

Her technical skills grew under the tutelage of Paul Sills, whose famed Tony Award-winning "Story Theatre" helped shape the influential improvisational style of "Second City."

"With Paul, I got the 'showbiz' knocked out of me. He used to say, 'In my theater, either you're performing for, or sharing with, an audience. Nobody goes out there to show how cute they are.' He was brilliant."

Harper has kept her theatrical roots constantly nourished, despite the television success that made her a household name, touring in productions of "Agnes of God" and "Dear Liar," and appearing in the Woody Allen-Elaine May Off-Broadway comedy "Death Defying Acts." A one-woman show about Pearl S. Buck, titled "All Under Heaven" has become a mainstay in her repertoire. The show has played Off-Broadway and in regional theaters, and talks have begun to turn it into a film for television.

"I used to think, when I was young, that becoming a performer was shallow," she admits candidly, "but mother said no. Follow your heart, and you can be of service in many ways."

Harper's mother also receives credit for starting her on the road to activism. Harper is involved with The Hunger Project, and Results, which helps impoverished people, mostly women, start small businesses. In October, she will run for president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

"A new spirit of democracy entered SAG with William Daniels [who is not running again], and I want to continue that spirit," she says.

"I also believe we need to look at other issues, like helping protect intellectual property rights, making peace with our agents who have entered into agreements with corporations we may need to negotiate with, and also, to see that our contracts follow us wherever in the world we work."

Harper has also authored a book. Last spring, HarperCollins released "Today, I Am a Ma'am," a humorous collection of observations, cartoons, and advice for "women of a 'certain age.'

"You see it's not what happens in your life, it's how you handle it. Ruth [Gordon] made a big impression on me about that. You have to be the author of your own life."

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