It seemed as if the whole room was holding its collective breath as Valerie Harper took to the dance floor on Dancing With The Stars Monday night. Would the beloved star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a 74-year-old who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, get through 68 seconds of non-stop fox trot?
"Oh, my God," says her husband of 26 years, Tony Cacciotti, who sat on the sidelines. "I'm so damn proud of her, but I couldn't wait for it to be over. I was so nervous. I was hoping that she wouldn't fall, and I was going through all kinds of scenarios in my mind."
Luckily, none of those scenarios came to pass. Harper not only finished the routine, she received a standing ovation from the studio audience and a score of 21 from the judges, tying her for eighth place (out of 12) for the night.
She'll still have a long road ahead if she wants to make it far in the competition. After every live show, Cacciotti says that Harper will take the powerful drug, Tarceva, which targets the lung cancer that has spread to the membranes surrounding Harper's brain. "It will knock her out for the next 24 hours," he says. "It has an effect on you like you're inebriated." She will take Tuesdays off and return to the rehearsal studios with her pro, Tristan MacManus, on Wednesdays. Cacciotti says Harper's willingness to fight her grim diagnosis has been something to see. But he also says there have been times when he could barely stand to watch.
"I'll say this: Two and a half months ago, she could barely walk," says Cacciotti, a former personal trainer for A-list celebrities including John Travolta and Richard Gere. "She couldn't walk a block because she would lose her breath. I'd coax her. We live near the bluffs in Santa Monica. And I'd say, 'Let's take a walk.' And she'd say, 'I really don't feel like it.' And I'd say, 'Just walk a little, and then we'll sit down on a bench.' And it was very, very difficult to see someone I've been with for 35 years not be able to walk a block, and not be able to catch her breath. And I'd pretend I didn't notice. But little by little, we extended the benches until she was doing half a mile. And now, even for her to do a minute of non-stop dancing, that's a lot. But it's going to bring her to the next step."
Is his wife a miracle woman? "I don't know if she's a miracle woman," he says, tears coming to his eyes. "But she's very special. She's going to crash tonight, but in 24 hours, she'll be up and at it again."