Good as Golda
by Ronald Sklar
Even all these decades later, the woman who played one of the most beloved TV characters of all time still arouses intense reactions.
“Little old Jewish ladies grab my cheeks and say, ‘sweetheart, darling, they tell me you’re not Jewish. Say it isn’t so,'” says Valerie Harper, who played the insecure, wise-cracking, never-the-bride Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and in her own successful spin-off series in the seventies (written and produced by many of the same people now associated with The Simpsons). The role, over eight years, won her four Emmys.
“The truth is, if you go back far enough, we’re all Jewish,” Harper says, though her own background is a mix of Irish, Scottish, English, Protestant, Catholic and even Canadian on her mother’s side (she currently declares herself an agnostic Zionist, and lives with her Italian-American husband in Santa Monica).
What, no Ba’hai?
She has no problem being so deeply identified with such a classic role, and often even being mistaken for the actual character itself by an adoring America.
On being constantly recognized and having her cheeks squeezed and hands shook, she says, “It’s like having family and friends I didn’t know I had. There is something about walking through an airport and faces lighting up like they’re seeing a relative that they like. It’s so beautiful.”
While the series that made her famous pushed the envelope and became an important TV landmark, Harper’s latest role, as the lead in the film Golda’s Balcony, shows great departures from her signature character, as well as some extremely close similarities.
Golda’s Balcony is based on the Broadway play (the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history, originated by Tovah Feldshuh) and on the unique life of Israeli premier Golda Meir.
Harper is winning raves for her sharp yet nuanced portrayal, unveiling a delicious new seasoning on her acting chops (kosher chops, of course).
“Rhoda was Jewish, and I think it kind of paved the way for me to play Golda,” she says. “I toured in the play for a year before we did the movie. It’s a marvelous play. I had seen it but didn’t think about doing it. My child is out of college now and on her own, so I thought, well maybe I could tour the country.”
Golda Meir, as both a character and a “character,” is what drew Harper to the project. Meir was Russian born, but grew up in America; specifically Milwaukee, a town not exactly known for its Jewish majority. She was a schoolteacher who, through a series of incredible twists of fate, became the leader of Israel at a most crucial time. It’s a story that would sound unbelievable if it were fiction.
She says, “Golda is that rare and powerful, brilliant combination of a visionary and a rubber-meets-the-road activist. Often, activists shouldn’t govern. They should often just roll up their sleeves and do the work. Dr. Martin Luther King was one of them. They don’t come along often. I think Golda is in that area. A lot of visionaries are not good in the trenches. Golda, though, was very plain, and she saw to the core of an issue.”
The woman who governed Israel at an especially difficult time in its always-difficult history was more than just multi-faceted and complex. She handled her enormous tasks with grace, practicality and even humor.
“When you think of what she gave up in terms of her family,” Harper says, “She and [her husband] Morris loved each other very much. There is this song from Guys and Dolls called, ‘I’ll Marry the Man Today and Change His Ways Tomorrow.’ Great song, bad advice. I think Golda thought that, at twenty-three, heading for Palestine in 1921. She thought that Morris would get the fire of commitment that she had. That he will really become a Zionist, he will know we must do this.
“However, he thought, I’ll marry her, we’ll go there for a while, and then she’ll be tired, and I’ll schlep her back to Denver. He was very educated, an intellectual, and a lover of classical music, and here she was, this political firebrand. He couldn’t stand that she had to do what she had to do, and she was not about to come back to America. She just couldn’t do it. So, he stayed, and they were always together in terms of the family, even though they were no longer living as husband and wife.
“She wasn’t promiscuous, but she had long, passionate love affairs, often with married men. They were strong, powerful males dedicated to the founding of the state, which was where she operated. She operated in the company of men, as an equal, as a real powerful force, at a time where women just weren’t doing that.”
Both the play and the film are enlightened by Meir’s dry sense of humor, which, of course, Harper can handle with ease.
She says, “One of my favorite lines Meir says is, ‘I can understand why the Arabs want us dead, but do they really expect us to cooperate?’ And lines like, ‘Don’t be humble. You’re not that great.’
“[Israeli military general David] Ben-Gurion used to say, ‘I want to introduce you to Golda Meir, the best man in my cabinet.’ And it pissed her off. She didn’t like it. When asked what it felt like to be a female minister in the cabinet, she said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never been a man.’ She never thought she was a feminist, but she walked the walk, even if she didn’t have the label.
“Clearly, she was one of the great individuals of the twentieth century, male or female. She didn’t smile a lot, but occasionally she did. In this piece, there is not a lot of room for it, except for where she’s back in the past. She had this very powerful centered thing, with no apology. She would look you in the eye and tell you the truth. I always admired her and respected her and realized that she was American. I was always proud that she sounded like us. But not only us, she sounded like the middle of the country. Right out of Wisconsin. I didn’t know her sense of humor was so incredibly sharp. Incredibly witty, without trying to be funny and hilarious, because she was just telling the truth.”
That’s where the obvious comparison with Rhoda comes in.
She says, “Rhoda was patterned after my stepmother, who was Italian, Angela Posillico, who passed a couple of years ago. Adorable. She had that real chip-on-your-shoulder, cute feisty, New York way about her. And Penny Anne Green, who was really Joanna Greenburg from Brooklyn. A very close friend. I picked people I loved to hear in my mind’s ear, to make Rhoda come out right. Rhoda embraced her Bronxness and her total Everywoman thing.”
Although Harper claims that she is a “failed ballerina,” she had made her way to the boards of Broadway (she danced in Li’l Abner, and in Wildcat with Lucille Ball). Also, on stage, she cut her comedic teeth with cutting-edge comedy troupes (including Second City).
Except for a few commercials and segments of Love, American Style, she was unknown on television, until an audition came along that changed the course of her life.
“I got [the role of Rhoda] very easily,” she says. “I was immediately given the job. I was driving home, ten minutes from the audition room, and my then-husband, Dick [Schaal, the actor], was out on the lawn yelling, ‘You got it! You got it!’ It was incredible, because I had gone out for commercials and had twelve callbacks that failed. It seemed too easy, too painless. And yet it was the most important thing for my career.”
However, the self-depreciating New Yawkah was not originally created with the same persona that we eventually grew to love.
“I was supposed to be Mary’s nemesis,” she says. “Rhoda was supposed to be jealous of Mary, but she got to adore her. They became best friends. Mary is who you wish you were, Rhoda is who you probably are, and Phyllis [Cloris Leachman, playing the spoiled, married neighbor] is who you are afraid you’ll become.
“They had written Mary as a divorcée, starting again. And the network said no. So, they said, okay, we’ll make her single, and wanting a relationship but working on her career. Rhoda, because of her indoctrination from [her mother] Ida, was supposed to be ‘Sadie, Sadie, Married Lady’ and was upset about it. She had jobs, but Mary had a career. That was the difference.
“[TV writer] Treva Silverman wrote two of my four Emmy shows. She is incredibly funny. She, like other women, were brought along by Jim [Brooks] and Allen [Burns] on purpose because they used to say, ‘we write women well, but there is an area that we don’t do: that nail polish and panty hose stuff. There is a world of comedy in my wife’s purse.’
“Remember the bridesmaid dress show? Men wouldn’t think of that. All of us have crawled into an ugly dress for our girlfriends. They’re all kind of generically ugly. Straight guys don’t think of that.”
With the advent of the Rhoda spinoff, millions of viewers of all backgrounds could kvell at the Jewish humor. Take this for instance (please): Rhoda asks her über-Jewish mother Ida [Nancy Walker] why she gave both her and her sister the same middle name: Rhoda Faye and Brenda Faye.
Rhoda: Ma, if you like the name Faye so much, why didn’t you just name one of us Faye?
Ida: I didn’t like it that much.
Although Jewish-American influence on television – both behind and in front of the camera – was evident from the very beginning, it was only in the seventies when they could actually first admit it and say the J word out loud.
“It was quite an interesting time in America,” Harper says, “and I think the show reflected it without being politically correct. We were never really an ‘issue’ show, but we sure were about people bumping into each other. It was really a family – a work family. It was such a wonderful show and such an opportunity to act and do great material.”
Of course, while many old TV series grow stale and dated (especially from the seventies), The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda remain – with the exception of a few pantsuits and hairdos – perennially hilarious; they’re the retro shows you laugh with and not at.
Harper says, “The show is as funny now as it was then – because of the writing. I asked Allen about it, and he thinks that a lot of kids today are writing TV from other TV shows. He saw plays. [Writers like] Danny Arnold and Jim Brooks went to the theatre. They would see and read plays, they would know about character development, climax, resolve, being true to the character. They learned from playwriting. Those were little plays, and that’s why they hold up, I think.”
As far as Harper herself, she is holding up quite well. A few years back, she threw her schmata in the ring for president of the Screen Actors’ Guild but lost to Melissa Gilbert (Rhoda vs. Half-Pint?). She also appeared on Broadway more recently in Tales of the Allergist’s Wife and had starred in a number of well-received TV movies and series appearances (including That 70s Show).
Although she is firmly placed in the here and now (she is involved in The Hunger Project), she is not computer literate and does not have email. However, her reluctance to get with the fad is turning her emoticon from sad to happy. She says, “I have to. I want to come into this. It’s really wrong to be living in this time and not being on the computer.”
Although she knows “it’s not going to play opposite Spiderman 3,” she is certain that her Meir biopic will find a dedicated audience.
“I prepared to play the role with great respect and great trepidation about doing Golda proud,” she says. “In Israel, Golda was actually hated for a long time. Now, people are looking at her as a national treasure. With distance, history starts to get clearer about people.”
Check out a Mary Tyler Moore rerun and see if this does not ring exactly true.
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Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 29, 2007.