Remembering Valerie Harper

Actress Valerie Harper speaks in South Pasadena back in 2001 at the Council campaign kickoff of her stepson, Michael Cacciotti. Flanking Harper are (left to right), a young Cacciotti, his sister Cristina and his father Tony. Photo Courtesy of Michael Cacciotti

The world knew actress Valerie Harper as “Rhoda,” the wise-cracking best friend on the old Mary Tyler Moore show — a character so popular that CBS spun her off into her own series, a character so beloved that her premier episode beat “Monday Night Football” in the TV ratings in 1974.      

But South Pasadena Councilman Michael Cacciotti knew Harper — who died of cancer last week at age 80 — like few others did. She was his stepmother.

This week, as the world remembered a TV icon and three-time Emmy winner, Cacciotti shared some personal memories of the Valerie Harper the world might not know: of a selfless, compassionate woman who worked tirelessly on hunger and homelessness issues; of someone so down-to-earth she could call her friend, President Reagan, “Ronald” while lobbying for increased affordable-housing funds — and who would often speak with Reagan on the phone.

Cacciotti also recalled a gracious host who simply could not allow a house-guest to leave without first eating a home-cooked meal; and he remembered a loving stepmom who, during Cacciotti’s first run for Council, actually went door to door in South Pas, campaigning.

Cacciotti won the election … of course he did. Who’s gonna say no to Rhoda?

“When I first ran in 2001, she’d offer to come out here and help me,’’ Cacciotti recalled with a smile and a laugh. “My dad said no, but she said, ‘Tony, we’re going out there.’ She even walked the precincts sometimes! She’d go out there walking door to door. That’s the type of person she was.”

“Tony” is Anthony Cacciotti, Michael’s dad, a personal trainer to the stars who first met Harper around 1979, during the filming of the Neil Simon movie “Chapter Two.”

“She needed to lose a bunch of weight, and they (the producers) said you’ve got to call this guy Tony Cacciotti … he’ll get you in shape,’’ Michael Cacciotti said. “She hired him, and several months later they fell in love.’’

Cacciotti, whose father and mother divorced when he was very young, said he moved to the Los Angeles area from Florida around 1983, after law school … and that Harper was immediately welcoming to him.

“She became in essence my stepmother, and then a few years later they got married,’’ he said. “She was just a wonderful person … just treated me as her own son. She was down-to-earth, loving.’’

And not just to him, he said. She was always working to help people in need, organizing trips to Washington with other stars to lobby for hunger and homelessness causes, and eventually starting a food bank that fed the needy in the L.A. area.

“I remember flying back to Washington with her and my dad — these were the days when Reagan was in the presidency,’’ Cacciotti said. “They were fighting for more money for housing and homelessness back then, and she was close friends with Ronald, and he would call her at the house and she’d call him.’’

Did she really call him “Ronald”?

“She did, yes,’’ Cacciotti said. “She was down with everybody, whether it was the president or a prime minister she was talking to, or a little kid, or anybody — she treated everybody with respect and dignity, that’s just the way she was.

“There were so many causes that she was involved in,’’ he added. “I think her and my dad are similar type of people, they care for people who are downtrodden, down on their luck, unfortunate.’’

One of her causes was an organization called “LIFE’’ — short for “Love Is Feeding Everyone.’’ Harper and her husband, along with actor Dennis Weaver, began the program.

“They were trying to feed people in East L.A. and South Central, the West Valley, who didn’t have food,’’ Cacciotti said. “They just started this program on their own.

“She put in thousands of dollars, tens of thousands of dollars, and would get people in the entertainment industry involved. She created this organization to feed tens of thousands of people — they’d go around in trucks and go out and collect food and drop it off at these food banks. This was, again, back in the ’80s, when it wasn’t popular. Just stuff she would do, just one of dozens of things she would do.’’

She never wanted self-aggrandizement or fanfare, he said.

“She just did it. She rolled up her sleeves, got out there and wanted to do something. ‘’

Cacciotti recalled another episode that captured Harper’s selflessness.

“One time, she goes, ‘Mike, I want you to come with Tony and I somewhere, we’re going to go have lunch, meet some people.’

“I show up, and it’s Cesar Chavez, and the United Farm Workers — she’s fighting for the farm workers back in the ’80s.  She had been fighting for them since the ’70s, when it wasn’t popular and nobody knew about it.’’

In January 2013, Harper was diagnosed with brain cancer and given “three to six months at the most,” Cacciotti said.

That Harper beat that dire diagnosis by more than six years was testament to her spirit, Cacciotti said.

“Her spirit, my dad’s spirit, their love, her love for life, her love for people,’’ he said. “My dad, he did everything — medication, hospitals, whatever he could find, the best treatment around the world, he did it.’’

Cacciotti recalled his last conversation with Harper, a few months ago on the beach at Santa Monica, where Valerie and Tony lived.

“She was just happy about life, happy to be alive, still asking about what’s going in life, still concerned about issues in the world, whether it was homelessness, hunger, whatever it was, politics — she was still involved,’’ Cacciotti recalled.

That’s something that lives on in his mind, Cacciotti said.

“I used to teach at a Catholic high school,’’ he said. “I always taught the kids, the most important quality, I felt — as a Christian, actually any faith or religion — was compassion. That was the ability to understand the pain and suffering of others, but not just to do that, but actually at the same time, do something to alleviate their pain.

“You talked about altruism and compassion — she was a model of both of those.’’

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