Valerie Harper made it OK to be a Rhoda
I can see the invitations now: Mr. and Mrs. Martin Morgenstern are relieved to announce the marriage of their daughter Rhoda to Douglas Hemple … who’s not nearly good enough for her.
I’d planned on using that joke when I got married, but it didn’t look promising. My longest relationship lasted from dinner to breakfast. So, I gave it to Rhoda, played by Valerie Harper on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” on which I was a scriptwriter. She was fantasizing about a man she’d gone out with once. The studio audience laughed so loud, it drowned out the punchline.
Though neither single, Jewish, nor a loser, Harper, who died Aug. 30 at 80, was totally convincing as the desperate, wisecracking second banana. In her colorful shmattas that looked as if they’d come from a thrift shop, she struggled for approval while things came effortlessly to her shiksa best friend. Casting someone vibrant and attractive as Rhoda allowed those of us who identified with her to hope we might not be as mediocre as we believed.
One dateless Saturday night, a girlfriend and I were watching the show when I surprised both of us by blurting out, “Why don’t we try writing an episode?” For five years I’d been working for the comedy legend Carl Reiner. I loved my job and imagined I’d be his secretary forever. But in the early ’70s the women’s movement was insisting we have the same job opportunities as men.
Before my friend could point out that two secretaries had zero chance of breaking into the male-dominated world of comedy writing, I pitched a story. “Rhoda’s crazy about a guy she’s had a few dates with and is trying to get Mary to agree that the feeling is mutual. Mary isn’t coming through. We find out why when she gets to the office and tells her colleague that the guy Rhoda likes asked her out.”
Tall and slim, with a ready smile, seemingly uncomplicated and free of angst, my friend was a “Mary.” Her biggest problem was finding a gentle way of turning down a date. Like her television counterpart, though men gave her the rush, she never got involved with any, explaining, “He’s not my type.” I didn’t know why, nor did she. You wouldn’t find a Mary in the personal growth section of a bookstore.
I persuaded her to collaborate by saying, “What have we got to lose?” We were shocked when the script led to our getting assignments. Walking into the MTM office for our first meeting, my partner was greeted by an executive producer exclaiming, “You’re Mary.” Turning to me, he said, “And you’re Rhoda.” In our 30s and single, I felt sure everyone would see my partner as the star and me, the funny best friend, as the pickle that comes with the sandwich.
During our second year as a team, my partner was offered an associate producer job on a New York TV show and told me she was taking it. I was fine to go forward on my own. Freelancing, I pushed the feminist agenda in scripts, but was secretly desperate to meet a man and get married. After five years in L.A., I got the sense that outspoken, funny girls must be on the “do not call” list.
Saturday nights I’d get together with girlfriends and watch our favorite sitcom. “At least I won’t have to pay to clean my date dress,” I quipped. In 1974 we learned that Valerie would be starring in her own series. How would Mary survive without her? How would I? The show was to be set in New York, a good place for smart, funny women.
“I’m considering becoming bi-coastal,” I told my therapist. He urged me not to be impulsive.
On Oct. 28, 1974, I was among the 52 million viewers watching Rhoda hop onto the subway and get married. If there was a guy in New York for her, maybe there would be one for me. I booked a one-way ticket and packed my date dress.
May 4, 1980, was my turn. Our wedding guests followed my new husband and me out of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue. As we climbed into the hansom cab I’d arranged to pick us up, they spontaneously burst into “Happy Trails to You.” In our formal wedding attire, Martin and I went to Mt. Sinai with a slice of cake for a friend who was hospitalized. Diners at outdoor restaurant tables yelled congratulations as the horse and buggy passed. Nobody seemed to find it unusual to see a bride and groom at the hospital. New Yorkers have seen it all.
This year Martin and I will celebrate our 40th anniversary and the birth of our first grandchild. Validated by Valerie Harper, I had the chutzpah to go after what I wanted and learned to love being a Rhoda.
Sybil Adelman Sage, who lives in New York, wrote for television for years.