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'DWTS' pro Tristan MacManus: Valerie Harper will 'never be Rhoda to me'

Valerie Harper with "Dancing With the Stars" pro Tristan Macmanus.

Valerie Harper’s debut on "Dancing With the Stars" Monday night, in which she danced a foxtrot with pro partner Tristan MacManus, couldn’t have been scripted better.

The actress, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer earlier this year (that is now close to being in remission), received respectful comments from the judges and a respectable score of 21 points.

In a classy move, MacManus stepped away from Harper after their routine was completed, opting to join the audience as it showered the sitcom star with heartfelt applause.

“That just came to me in the moment,” he told TODAY of his decision to give Harper the spotlight. “To be honest, I could have done it halfway through the dance. I felt that Valerie needed to know how much she’s appreciated and how much everyone’s affected by her scenario.”

To generations of television viewers, including newer ones who watch reruns of Harper’s work on MeTV, the actress will be known forever as Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary Richards’ wise-cracking, loyal pal from New York on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," who was spun off into her own series.

Harper's pro dancer partner isn’t as familiar with her work in sitcoms as most Americans are; he was born in Ireland in 1982, three and a half years after "Rhoda" was canceled.  

“The only thing (I've) ever seen Valerie in is her own roast by Dean Martin,” MacManus revealed. “Granted, it was a roast, but listening to people talk about her so fondly made me want to know a little bit more about her. She’ll never be ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ to me. She’ll never be ‘Rhoda’ to me. She’ll only ever be Valerie to me because that’s how I met her.”

MacManus appreciates that judges Carrie Ann Inaba, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli were kind to Harper with their comments, but he’d be okay with them being a bit more constructive.

“I think they actually could have been more critical with everyone else, too,” he mused. “If I’m given a particular critique I know I can work on that much more. I think their comments (to Valerie) were respectful because she was respectful.”

MacManus is, of course, sensitive to Harper’s situation, but his goal is to make sure she gets the most out of her experience on the dance competition program.

“I’ve had people in my family who’ve died from cancer,” he revealed. “That plays in my head. (But) I can’t afford to treat Valerie like a cancer victim. She deserves to be here on the show. I treat her like a person who’s here to dance.”

MacManus adds he couldn’t be more proud of his student. “Our first dance went great,” he says. “It was going terrible all day, but we she cleared her mind and focused on what she was supposed to. I was really, really happy with her performance.”