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Producer's notebook: Meeting my eighth Rhoda (and only Valerie Harper)

There are plenty of famous Valeries. No mountains, perhaps, but certainly more than a molehill – former CIA officer Valerie Plame, actress Valerie Bertinelli, presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett. Several Valeries... but for millions of Americans, there will only ever be one Rhoda.Valerie Harper is just fine with that. She says she enjoys walking down the street and being greeted by fans crying
TODAY producer Tony Freinberg with Valerie Harper, his "eighth Rhoda."
TODAY producer Tony Freinberg with Valerie Harper, his "eighth Rhoda."TODAY / Today

There are plenty of famous Valeries. No mountains, perhaps, but certainly more than a molehill – former CIA officer Valerie Plame, actress Valerie Bertinelli, presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett. Several Valeries... but for millions of Americans, there will only ever be one Rhoda.

Valerie Harper is just fine with that. She says she enjoys walking down the street and being greeted by fans crying out, “Rhoda!” And it’s not hard to understand why they do. That laugh, that style, that easy approachability – not to mention that insatiable love of dessert – they are all just as present in Valerie’s home today as they were on TV 40 years ago.

I met Valerie last weekend in pretty strange circumstances. Only 73, she has been diagnosed with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare and aggressive form of cancer. I had been sent to the house Valerie shares with her devoted husband Tony to prepare for her interview with Savannah Guthrie the next day. I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t the vivacious woman who bounded up to greet us at the door.

“Don’t mind my bronchitis,” she said, hugging me. “It’s not contagious. And my doctor says I can now speak in a sexy Marilyn Monroe voice. Or just think of me like Harry Belafonte. He’s sounded like this for years!”

This woman might be sick, and she is clear-eyed about her prognosis, but she was adamant that she wasn’t ready to give up. “I'm not dying until I do,” she told Savannah the next morning, with a laugh. “I promise I won't!” And for now, she was not just alive, but fizzing with life, warm-hearted, gregarious and ever so attentive – to our camera crew (“Are you sure you won’t have some of this incredible cream cake? Or maybe some apple pie?”), to our makeup artist and even to me, this little associate producer who had barged into her home with a silly English accent and a lengthy list of things we were requesting to film.

As we settled into the shoot, Valerie asked me to tell her a bit about myself. And so I did – and I made a rather odd confession. She wasn’t my first Rhoda. You see, I come from the Family of the Seven Rhodas. For reasons lost in the mists of time, due to some bizarre family pact, my great-grandmother and six of her cousins were all called Rhoda – nicknamed, respectively, Big Rhoda, Little Rhoda, Rhoda Bloch, Rhoda Proc, Rhoda from Montreal, Rhoda Tannenbaum and French Rhoda with the apartement on the Avenue Foch. (I was very young when my great-grandmother, “Little” Rhoda Margulies, died, so I don’t have any memories her, though I clearly remember her sister, Sylvia, who said to me, aged 3, “You’re a lovely boy. Here’s 20 dollars. Now keep your feet off my sofa.”)

So, as I explained to Valerie, my head has been filled with tales of Rhodas from a young age – but not one of them had come from a television show. “Seven Rhodas!” said Valerie when I told her. “How amazing! How crazy!”

But within minutes of meeting Valerie, it was clear I’d now have an eighth Rhoda to think of as family. After all, who else but family would take such pains to make sure I was comfortable in her home? Who else but family would be so open to my every bizarre shooting request? Who else but family would apologize for how her bronchitis might be inconveniencing me? And who else but family would try so doggedly to force feed me (very delicious) cake?

Now, as Valerie bravely battles her cancer, I’m going to obey her instructions: there’ll be no premature grieving here. As she told Savannah, “Don't miss (life) mourning where you're going.” And that’s why, when a friend asked me how it had felt to spend two days with her, I said “lucky.” It turns out that seven Rhodas weren’t enough. Boy, am I lucky to have an eighth.

Tony Freinberg is an LA-based associate producer for TODAY.