When Michael Cacciotti first laid eyes on her, he shared the same feelings as his father.
“She was a wonderful, caring, compassionate, vigorous person,” said Cacciotti, an 18-year South Pasadena City Councilman, talking about Valerie Harper, the beloved actress who won over the world as his stepmother.
An intimate memorial and funeral were held last Saturday for the 80-year-old Harper at Hollywood Forever Cemetery for about 200, colleagues, family and friends. Cacciotti, who likes to tell the story how his father, Tony, and Harper met, was among them.
Cacciotti’s dad, a personal fitness advisor and actor, was hired by Harper to get her in shape for Neil Simon’s 1979 romantic comedy “Chapter Two.”
“She was doing a bathing suit scene and had to lose something like 30 pounds,” explained the councilmember.
Cacciotti said his dad was known by some as the “Lone Re-arranger,” for his ability to re-range people’s bodies for the good, as a play on the name “Lone Ranger,” the fictional masked Texas Ranger who fought outlaws in the American Old West alongside Native American friend, Tonto.
Need to lose weight or get in shape, Tony Cacciotti was the man in Hollywood who would get the call.
After several months of dating, explained Michael, recalling their romance, Tony and Valerie fell in love and eventually got married “…and had a great life together. Both were madly in love and got into projects that really helped people, communities, organizations and societies. Valerie was involved in everything.”
One day, remembers Cacciotti, Harper and his dad invited him to lunch and “we show up and there’s Cesar Chavez,” he said, talking about the American labor leader and Latino American civil rights activist. “Valerie was involved with the United Farm Workers back in the 1980s.”
Cacciotti joined his stepmom on a trip to Washington D.C. in the mid-1980s after she was summoned by a personal phone from then President Ronald Reagan. “She called him Ronnie,” Cacciotti said, “as she was asked to work on affordable housing and homelessness issues for him.”
Another organization, “Life is Feeding Everyone (L.I.F.E),” Cacciotti said, had Harper working with actor Dennis Weaver of the “McCloud” series, doing what she could to ensure everyone had a hot meal through the organization’s efforts.
On one occasion, the actress organized a march for “A Crime Free Community,” involving movie stars, elected officials and others as they strolled down Wilshire Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, “to fight for the people who felt helpless.”
Even when she was ill, Cacciotti said Harper would find a crusade to get behind.
“She would make appearances, support an organization, advocate for an issue,” he explained, noting that his stepmother even walked door-to-door for him during his successful City Council re-election campaigns.
Harper, best remembered as “Rhoda” on the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show, died August 30 following a long battle with cancer. Her role as Rhoda Morgenstern was a spin-off for “Rhoda,” her own show, in the 1970s.
In 2009, Harper made national news when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She announced on March 6, 2013, that tests from a January hospital stay revealed she had leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare condition in which cancer cells spread into the meninges, the membranes surrounding the brain.
At the time, Harper said her doctors had given her as little as three months to live. Although the disease was reported to be incurable, reports indicated that her doctors said they were treating her with chemotherapy in an effort to slow its progress.
Always the fighter – battling to the bitter end – Harper survived another six years.
Planned as a celebration of Harper’s life, those on hand Saturday to remember her were asked to wear color – no black – and given instructions to bring a yellow rose to be placed on the casket.
Notably, some of those in attendance were actors Elliott Gould, Connie Stevens, Frances Fisher, Joely Fisher and director James L. Brooks.
While struggling with two separate cancer diagnosis over the years, Cacciotti said she always maintained a positive attitude throughout most of her illness.
“She will be missed,” said Cacciotti, smiling as he thought about how his father and Valerie met, Tony tasked with drastically reducing her weight. “My dad tried to keep her in shape, but she loved chocolate. She had a hard time passing it up. It makes me laugh thinking about it. She was a great lady.”