Valerie Harper’s riff on real-life characters

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Barbara Ruben

You know her as self-deprecating, big-hearted Rhoda Morgenstern. But Valerie Harper has also portrayed former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and author Pearl S. Buck on stage.

Currently, she channels actress Tallulah Bankhead at Arena Stage, nailing her smoky contralto slur.

In a phone interview, Harper lowers her voice an octave or so and intones, “Hello, dahling. Let me tell you something shweetie,” in an exaggerated take on the legendary actress’s voice.

Harper plays Bankhead in Looped, a play based on a real incident where Bankhead had to redub, or loop, a few lines in a movie late in her career. What shouldn’t have taken more than 30 minutes, ends up lasting all day as Bankhead guzzles gin, downs codeine, bums cigarettes and berates the film editor.

“This is really a side-splitting comedy. There’s just obstacle after obstacle to this guy getting the line,” she said. “I must say the language is really raw because that’s how she talked.”

Harper, 68, said she grew up in the 1950s listening to Bankhead on the radio. Bankhead died at age 65 in 1968, three years after the redubbing incident that inspired Looped.

“She was part of my childhood. Think of [Bankhead] in the ‘50s, where everyone was buttoned-up and here she is, a buoyant, do-anything, say-anything person. She was quite an American original, so that’s been fun to play,” said Harper, who has already starred in sell-out productions of Looped in California and Florida.

One reviewer said Harper is “exquisite at capturing both the brazen attitude of a rebel as well as the unbearable sadness of a woman at the end of her days who has accomplished only one-eighth of her potential.”

Harper hopes the show will move on to Broadway in the fall.

Roles for older actors

When playwright Matthew Lombardo sent Harper the script for Looped, she jumped at taking the part.

“I had no reservations about taking the role. I loved it. I just hoped I could do it justice,” she said. “My friends and I called each other shweetie for years. We called it Tallulah talk.”

Today Harper lives in Los Angeles with her husband Tony Cacciotti, who is an actor and producer. They have a daughter, Cristina, who is also an actor.

Harper said she has found it easier to find roles on stage than on screen in recent years, possibly because being onstage means no HD views of crows feet and other signs of aging.

But she hopes as the overall age of Americans increases, television and movies will become more accepting of using older women actors in meaty roles.

“Everyone is ignoring this huge, vast amount of people. So I think if more women write and produce and cast, there will be more substantial roles,” she said. In the meantime, “The aging of society is great because women are turning off these mindless teenybopper kind of TV shows because they’re not well crafted.”

Becoming Rhoda

Harper said that “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970 to 1977) “really brought women into comedy writing.” She starred as Mary’s perpetually single upstairs neighbor Rhoda

“This was the first time, I think, so many women were either writing for a TV show or were on staff because it was about Mary, Rhoda and Phyllis and, of course, the office,” she said. “It was a family that was not blood. We were an adopted family. I loved it.”

In 1974, Harper’s character moved to New York for a spin-off show, “Rhoda.” That series lasted until 1978.

“People still come up to me and say, ‘I loved Rhoda.’ At the height of the show, it was Rhoda everywhere. And I didn’t mind a bit. I loved it. She was absolutely the impetus for my entire career,” Harper said.

Of all the roles she’s had over the years, Harper says she still feels the most affinity for Rhoda, even though she and her character had little in common.

“I was happily married at the time, a mom, not Jewish and a West coaster. So the circumstances that she was Jewish and from the Bronx and single and looking for a guy really didn’t have much to do with me. But a lot of her heart urges were the same,” she said.

In 1986 and 1987, Harper starred in a sitcom called “Valerie” (later renamed “The Hogan Family”) and has guest starred since then on such shows as “That ‘70s Show” and “Sex and the City.”

A life in the theatre

But theatre has always been Harper’s first love. She performed in such Broadway musicals as Li’l Abner, Wildcat with Lucille Ball and Destry Rides Again with Andy Griffith early in her career. More recently, in 2000, she wrote and starred in the play All Under Heaven, about author Pearl S. Buck.

In 2006, she played Gold Meir the touring version of Golda’s Balcony. Harper went on to recreate the role in the film version, in 2007.

“With Golda, it was just such a beautiful, monumental character. The great thing about her was she was very down to earth,” she said.

When asked how she prepares to play such diverse characters, Harper said, “I look at what is similar about this character to Valerie and what is dissimilar. For instance, Golda never fluttered her hands around like I do. She was just very, very centered.

“Tallulah is very much her polar opposite. But they both have an inner core of strength.”

Harper said she can’t imagine a time she will end her acting career.

“Every time out [on stage] is the first time for me. That’s how I approach the theatre. It’s a wonderful life to be in. Life in the theatre is a wonderful life.”