Valerie Harper In 1997 Bows As Pearl Buck At TheaterWorks
Sad news: Valerie Harper died Friday at the age of 80, more than six years after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. I interviewed Harper several times over the years. Below is a Hartford Courant interview from 1997 when she starred as author Pearl Buck in “The Dragon and the Pearl” at TheaterWorks in Hartford.
By Frank Rizzo
You might not immediately think of actress Valerie Harper as author Pearl S. Buck.
After all, Harper is a born-and-bred New Yorker, full of energy, chutzpah and humor. She won four Emmys for her portrayal of her most memorable character -- Rhoda Morgenstern, --a television icon.
Buck, on the other hand, was a patrician woman who was raised in China, wrote scores of books, built charitable foundations and hobnobbed with both peasants and presidents.
But look again.
Harper is a passionate woman. She is an activist. She is smart and savvy and open-hearted. And on stage, with her hair tied back in a bun, showing her age and then some (she turns 57 next month) and exuding a warm steadfastness, Harper is a woman transformed.
She is starring in the one-woman show "The Dragon and the Pearl," which had earlier productions in Chicago and New Hampshire. A revamped production is now playing at Hartford's TheaterWorks, directed by its associate director, Rob Ruggiero, and continues there through Aug. 31. (It opens to critics on Friday.)
The stark and simply staged production, in which Harper portrays more than a dozen characters from Buck's life and works, then transfers to the off-Broadway Lamb Theatre for an indefinite run.
Harper knows the power of persuasion of the theater. She began her stage career in the '50s in the chorus of such musicals as "Wildcat," "Subways Are for Sleeping," "Take Me Along" and "Li'l Abner." She gained further credentials in Paul Sills' celebrated productions of "Story Theatre" and "Metamorphosis."
Then came her phenomenal television successes, which took up much of the '70s, followed by dozens of guest appearances, movies-of-the-week and the ill-fated 1986 series "Valerie," which was morphed into "The Hogan Family" when producers axed the star in a salary and creative-control dispute and killed off her character.
Last year, she returned to the theater for the off-Broadway run of "Death Defying Acts," performing one-act comedies by Woody Allen and Elaine May.
It was then that Harper decided she wanted to move back to New York and perform on stage again, but with her own property in a one-person show.
Her husband, Tony Cacciotti, suggested Buck, and Harper immediately agreed.
"She was my mother's favorite author," says Harper.
Cacciotti commissioned playwright Marty Martin ("Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein," starring Pat Carroll) to write a script, based on the recent biography of Buck.
The dowager author-activist Buck is not as well known today as she was in her prime, but in her day, she was a phenomenon.
She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in part for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Good Earth," based on her intimate knowledge ofpoor Chinese farm families as she grew up as the daughter and wife of missionaries in China.
Her popularity was denigrated by the literary intelligensia of the day, who preferred introspective and psychological writings over Buck's accessible prose. Sexism may have had something to do with it.
"She also wasn't part of the `old boys literary club,' " Harper says.
One of Buck's defenders was James Michener, who saw in Buck a woman who was opening up a whole new world in her popular novels, essays and stories.
Despite her detractors, Buck was a bestselling author from the '30s through the '50s.
"The critics didn't have to explain her to anybody," says Harper. "A Pearl Buck book came out and it just flew off the shelves. Millions sold."
Plowing new ground
Even though she wrote about a land that was unknown to her readers, she always wrote from a personal point of view "and spoke to issues that concerned the human heart," says Harper.
"She was really a Confucian," she says, "and by that I mean she adhered to certain rules of decency and honor that will result in harmony. It's called `The Divine Principle.' It's the Golden Rule. If we just treat each other as we would want to be treated."
Buck was also a social activist who fought for civil rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and a nuclear test ban. She created two foundations to help Asian-American children. "Buck loved babies because of their promise," says Harper. "She felt if you could get them young enough, you could solve all the problems in the world."
But Buck's activities caused her to be the target of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and other right-wing politicians. She was also the subject of FBI surveillance, which continued to the end of her life.
Harper herself has always been an activist, whether it be boycotting grapes, or marching in picket lines to integrate industrial shows (entertainments commissioned by corporations), to using her celebrity to bring attention to issues of world hunger.
"But my activism is nothing like what Pearl was doing," she says. "But I do share her feeling that when you become famous or make a lot of money, it's incumbent upon you to -- "
She stops herself.
"I hear people saying how they want to `give something back' and that makes me a little uneasy. It's nice but it seems so meager, so much like a gesture. I think real contributions could not even mean money. It might be educating yourself on an issue so you can speak clearly, and sharing it with people and letting people know what they can do. There are so many ways. You look at what you got. Someone can bake a great cake for a bake sale. Someone can help run a computer. I am an actress and am visible, so let me use that tool toward really making a potent difference."
Life with Rhoda
Harper speaks warmly of her most famous characterization, Rhoda Morgenstern, who first appeared on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" before spinning off into a series of her own, "Rhoda," from 1974 to 1978.
Harper says she is thrilled when she is recognized by a young generation of fans who watch both shows on Nick at Night on cable television.
Harper's comfort level with her former identity is high. Recently, she dressed up as Rhoda during a fund-raiser on Fire Island.
"Everybody knows a Rhoda," she says, explaining the character's popularity. "She is a brash New Yorker who says the unsayable.
"I think one of the reasons why she is so popular is that her warts show: she can sometimes be petty, tells lies, gets jealous. There's a whole lot of stuff going on in the character and I don't think people had ever seen anything quite like her before on television."
Harper says there are discussions about bringing an older Rhoda back to television and discovering what she would be like in the '90s.
"I was talking to [producer] Allan Burns about it and he was excited about the idea so we're talking about it," she says. "At least I still look reasonably like myself."
But for now, Harper's life is centered on Buck.