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TV icon Valerie Harper sees a few parallels between Rhoda and her character in 'The Tale of the Allergist's Wife,' which opens Tuesday at the National Theatre.

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Date published: 3/2/2003

THE PHONE is ringing off the hook in Valerie Harper's hotel room. And she's locked out.

Just as Rhoda Morgenstern would do, she runs downstairs for help, commandeers a friend's room and calls a reporter back on the friend's phone, on the friend's dime.

And just as Rhoda would, Harper then makes fun of herself for having trouble with those magnetic hotel key cards.

She became an American icon playing the hapless but lovable best friend who lived upstairs and was always imposing on Mary Richards on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

And she's much like that character. Easygoing. Effusive. Self-effacing. Funny. Likeable.

Within seconds, she makes the reporter feel like a lifelong friend.

Rhoda essentially was Harper. The classic TV show's writers molded the character to fit her. Rhoda and Mary were initially supposed to be rivals on the program and Cloris Leachman, who played Phyllis, was supposed to be Mary's buddy and confidante. But when the producers saw the budding chemistry between Harper and Moore, they quickly--and wisely--switched things around.

"I was supposed to be her nemesis, but there was a spark between us and the producers saw it," Harper said. "So they decided I would still be a thorn in Mary's side, but that we would be friends."

She also said the show's original concept was for Ted Baxter, the WJM-TV anchorman, to be Mary's love interest at the office.

"But when they auditioned Ted Knight, he was so funny, they moved it in a different direction," Harper said.

Like the late, great Knight, Harper has a big enough personality to make big things pivot sharply and go in new directions and to move big audiences just about wherever she wants them to go.

That's why she was the first choice to play the lead in the Broadway play "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" three years ago--a role that ultimately went to Linda Lavin because Harper had other commitments then. And that's why the producers later jumped at the chance to hire her to play Marjorie Taub when the comedy went on tour and she happened to be available.

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