Born: August 22, 1939;

Died: August 30, 2019.

VALERIE Harper, who has died from complications from cancer, was hardly the only actor to be identified almost entirely with a single character. But few parlayed a supporting part into a principal role with quite as much success, and impacted on popular culture and fashion to quite such an extent.

The character of Rhoda Morgenstern began as Mary Tyler Moore’s neighbour on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in 1970. She proved so popular that she was given her own spin-off series, Rhoda, in 1974. The show was perky and upbeat, very much of its period, reflecting and influencing American popular culture, with many adopting Rhoda’s distinctive habit of wearing scarves as hats. The “Rhoda look” was apparently inspired by Harper’s own secretary

Rhoda proved even more successful than the parent show, with which it ran in tandem, with occasional overlapping plots. Rhoda ran for five seasons, and Harper won four Emmy awards and a Golden Globe for playing the character.

She entitled her autobiography I, Rhoda. It came out shortly before it was revealed that she had terminal cancer. She was given only three months to live, but remained positive. That was in 2013.

Although the character of Rhoda was Jewish, Harper herself was Roman Catholic. The daughter of a salesman and a nurse, she was born Valerie Kathryn Harper in Suffern, on the New York-New Jersey border in 1939. She had ancestors from Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales and France.

She had early aspirations to be a ballet dancer. She appeared in a dance scene in the 1956 film Rock, Rock, Rock and made her Broadway debut soon afterwards in the chorus for the musical Li’l Abner. It was the first of a series of stage musicals and comedies in which Harper appeared in the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1964 she married the actor Dick Schaal, whom she met when they were working with the Second City improvisational comedy troupe in Chicago. She later revealed that they had an “open marriage”.

She continued working in theatre and occasionally appeared in small roles in TV and film. In the late 1960s she and Schaal moved to California and co-wrote an episode of the comedy series Love, American Style, in 1970.

Mary Tyler Moore was an established star, but Harper was still a virtual unknown, in her thirties, when she auditioned for Tyler Moore’s show. It was set in a Minneapolis TV newsroom, with Tyler Moore breaking new ground playing producer Mary Richards, who is neither widowed nor divorced, but just happens to want to pursue a career. Many of the most memorable scenes happened when she went home. Rhoda was the upstairs neighbour, a window dresser. Two independent and modern women, they immediately hit it off, though they were also different in many ways. Rhoda was self-deprecating, insecure and a little overweight, supposedly.

The subsidiary characters proved so well-written, well-acted and popular with audiences that Rhoda, the landlady Phyllis and the newsroom boss Lou Grant all ended up with their own eponymous spin-off shows.

Rhoda returns to New York in her show, by which point the character seems rather more glamorous. She moves in with her sister Brenda (played by Julie Kavner). Harper’s own sunny disposition illuminated the role. The storyline leading up to Rhoda’s marriage brought in a huge audience, but seemed to undermine the concept of the character and the show, and the marriage did not last long. Harper got divorced in real life as well.

Harper appeared in about 90 episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show between 1970 and 1977, and 110 instalments of Rhoda between 1974 and 1978. There was also a one-off feature-length reunion show called Mary and Rhoda, in 2000.

Harper played Alan Arkin’s wife in the comedy film Freebie and the Bean in 1974, and Michael Caine’s wife in Blame It on Rio, in 1984. But her big-screen career never really took off, and she returned to TV comedy as the eponymous family matriarch in Valerie, in 1986. She departed after two seasons following a bitter salary dispute.

She starred in the comedy series City (1990) and The Office (1995) – not the Ricky Gervais one. Both proved short-lived. She also appeared in a series of guest roles, playing Teri Hatcher’s aunt in an episode of Desperate Housewives in 2011. In recent years she voiced various one-off characters in The Simpsons.

Harper was involved in politics, particularly on women’s issues, and she portrayed the Israeli leader Golda Meir in a one-woman touring production called Golda’s Balcony, in 2005-06.

She married for a second time in the 1980s, to Tony Cacciotti, a producer with whom she worked on Valerie and City, and they adopted a daughter. They both survive her.

Brian Pendreigh