Kate Mulgrew plays Mary Ryan on "Ryan's Hope"
Afternoon TV
September 1976

“Either give me the top or rock bottom…”

Kate’s Not Afraid Of Extremes…It’s The Middle Ground She Doesn’t Like. 

Twenty-year-old Kate Mulgrew came to New York at the tender age of seventeen . . . alone. At nineteen she concurrently landed a part in a play and the part of Mary Ryan in ABC's "Ryan's Hope."

Her survival in New York and her rapid accession to a major role on television were even more astounding to me when I learned that she was raised in the country outside Dubuque, Iowa (because the contrast between rural Iowa and New York City is so great). I asked her how she managed to overcome all the obstacles she was faced with here.

Kate said, "I'm very tough, I'm very strong. I do believe some people are born with, ah, extra skin so to speak. I was very naive of course, and very impressionable and vulnerable, and all that. But it was almost like a magic shield kept me from being very hurt and very surprised."

"Was it lack of awareness, or really a shield?" I asked.

"No, it was complete awareness, that's what it was. I was so completely aware that I didn't get into any trouble." Kate, in a very deliberate tone, continued: "I was very directive. I knew what I came here for. I didn't come here to screw around; I came here to work, and that's exactly what I did."

"How long before you got your first job?"

"I did showcases, and that whole number, and I was in school. I went to NYU for a year and then I went to acting school, Stella Adler's. Then I dropped out and hit the streets. I guess I was eighteen, nineteen, and I did that for about seven months. The end of the seventh month, I can't remember . . . anyway six, seven months, I couldn't pay my rent. So I waited on tables at night and I'd get up at seven in the morning and get the trade papers and do all those things." She continued with the admission that: "It all happened very quickly, very, very quickly."

I wasn't satisfied that I understood why she was able to make it here while so many other young, talented performers go astray, or return home, or simply stay here but change careers; so I asked her why.

Kate replied, "I have a funny feeling about that. I think that you can sense in another person what could possibly be great in them and what is special. And there are a lot of people who are very good actors, there is no question about that-but they simply don't have that extra thing which enables them to lift themselves above the muck. Do you know what I mean? I mean, I can get very bogged down. Very depressed and all that. But something in me strives to overcome it. I would say it's spirit . . . spirit." Referring to those who give up or go astray, she continued, "I think that's very mediocre. I want to avoid that at all costs. Either give me the top or rock bottom, but that middle ground, I don't like it."

During the course of the evening it became clear that Kate Mulgrew had overcome a great deal and there was no question in my mind but that this brilliant, attractive and keenly perceptive young woman had spirit-not only in the vivacious sense, but also in the religious sense. She gave me some glimpses of both when she spoke of her family, and of the recent death of her sister. Glimpses that gave me insight into where some portion of her spirit came from.

Speaking about her family, she said: "I come from a very large family. There were eight of us, and Mom and Dad. It was a very extraordinary life because it was not by any means normal, and very seldom healthy, if you can understand that. It was extremely Irish Catholic-raucous, loud, vital, devious. Irish Catholics are very devious, you'd better believe that right now. I'm giving you a clue into our true nature. Because of the religion which is overwhelming in our lives, and though I've abandoned that aspect, it still is, what shall I say . . . it's haunting. I was raised in a very spiritual manner. I was taught to believe in the soul and the heart; and the mind and the body were very secondary, if not unimportant.

"The love I have for my family is a strange, powerful, extremely important and vital love. It's so close, it's crazy. I mean there is always somebody here with me. My sister just left; my brother was here the week before; my father was here the week before that; my mother was here for a month; next week somebody's coming, and it's like that. It's beautiful in a way, but in a way it's rather odd."

Her reminiscing about her family apparently led her to thoughts about the death of her two younger sisters. She told me that one had died from a kidney disease as a baby, the other from a brain tumor at the age of thirteen. As she talked about Tess, her "favorite sister," it was obvious that Tess's death had had a profound effect on Kate Mulgrew, and very likely had altered Kate's whole perception of life.

"You want to blame somebody, you want to blame something. You blame it on the fact that maybe she wanted to get out. I saw her deteriorate in front of my eyes. It was a brain tumor, the only kind of tumor that you can't help-a butterfly tumor. It envelops the brain and suffocates it. To see a beautiful young girl deteriorate for months and months, and know that there is nothing you can do except maybe love her more; but even that's a kind of bull.

"It's the one real thing that ever happened to me. I could stand up on a million stages, I could do a million television programs, I could sleep with a million men, I could do anything . . . but that's not real. What's real is when that love is gone and you don't know where the hell it went and you don't know why, because you loved. It was pure, it was honest, there was nothing acquired or. . . .

"Something in me wants to say, you know, that everybody should experience that because it's . . . you hear the expression: your world crashes in. Well I had a phone call that she died fifteen minutes before I had to go on stage."

"Did you go on?"

"Of course I went on. I didn't go home for the funeral. It didn't affect me for a long time. I was very blank about it. It just didn't register that she was dead. I saw her maybe a month before she died, she looked like hell of course."

"Did she know?"

"Did she know? Oh well, of course. She couldn't see, she couldn't move. She pulled me to her and said, 'Look, I'll tell you the truth, I don't want to die and I don't know why I was chosen; but I just want you to know how much I love you, I want you to know that.'

"But there's no getting her back is there? She was my favorite sister. In large families the older children always choose a younger child; so I knew her really better than anybody else. She adored me so. Oh God help us all, God help us."

At this point tears were swelling in Kate’s eyes and her face was distraught with pain. I wanted to lighten the conversation, but couldn't find the right words to do it.

She went on: "I want to do something good. I don't know, you've gotta pay life back for what it gives you, you've got to render back. Don't you think it's true?"

I responded with an "absolutely" and a bit of a smile, and she began to loosen up and get herself back together again.

"I mean, it's so extraordinary, everything is here. The gifts are just showered, one after another, upon your head, until you feel like a princess." She paused for a long time, and then continued with: "We're only here for one reason, love. I would guess you'd say I'd never been in love. Am I right or wrong?"

"No, you're wrong. You feel too much." I replied.

"Oh, you'd say that I have been in love?" she said, gazing at me with a rather surprised expression on her face.

I said, "Yes, haven't you?"

"Who knows!" she replied, and then after another long pause continued, "Yes I have, but I'm very young."

"Do you have that touted to you - your age?"

"That I'm so young? All the time!" she very emphatically responded.

Our conversation rambled on to various other interesting things about her family. Kate was particularly excited about her brother Tom who had just written a book. She told me that Tom had studied at McGill University in Montreal and then moved to Paris, where he wrote his book. The book is of especial interest because he wrote it in French and subsequently translated it to English. It's a children's book entitled: A Children's Geography.

Kate is planning to visit Tom in Paris this August and is also excited about that because she will be able to see Tom and to tour Paris for the first time. She told me that she'd been to England and Ireland, but hadn't been to the Continent.

During our conversation, Kate told me: "I'm not the greatest person to interview. That's because I really don't like to be interviewed. I don't know what to say, I really don't. What I really want to talk about doesn't have anything to do with the facts of my life."

I had no trouble believing that she didn't like to be interviewed. I wondered how one so young and petite could be so formidable. Miss Mulgrew radiated such confidence, determination and direction in her mannerisms that I was sometimes overwhelmed by her; and I frequently felt that I was the interviewee instead of the interviewer. I asked her, perhaps a little reluctantly, what she did want to talk about.

"Not the facts of my life, because they're so technical. I can give you a biography, a resume, you can have it."

I proceeded to ask her if she had any ongoing relationship, and she very politely told me that it was none of my business. But she did say that she was "independent and single by nature." She also pointed out that she was very young and that she anticipated a great many changes in her attitude as she matured.

Reverting to her coming to New York, she told me: "When I came to New York I learned, or saw very quickly that this is a barnyard. Everything is physical here, everything is of an earth quality. The transition was hard for me. You see I aspire toward a certain spirituality. There is a thing in me that wants to merely contemplate, for the rest of my life, and pray. Sex is still a problem. I'll be uptight for the rest of my life, I'm quite sure. But I wouldn't even call it uptight. I find sex shallow. That's because I am an Irish Catholic girl. Had I been a man things would be quite different for me. You see I'm all for sexual promiscuity for men. I think that's where they come from; that's their drive and that's their attraction."

I was not able to get her to reconcile the double standard she was professing; nor did she ever get into the "facts" of her life except what I have already mentioned and a little bit about her father whom she said was a contractor. At least, "That's how he makes his living." But she said he was a politician by "love." That political side of her father seemed to fit very nicely with her mother's background. Kate said her mother, who was an "East Coast" woman, was once Jack Kennedy's secretary.

She also told me about some of the books she had been reading and cited Salinger and Collette as two of her favorite authors. Kate told me that she liked to write short stories, but hadn't had anything published yet; and that she liked to write letters which she construed as a kind of short story, too.

To say my evening with Kate Mulgrew was an engrossing encounter is to understate the experience. She is intelligent, proud, witty, alive, and a bit contradictory. It takes a rare woman to evoke the sense of loveliness that she does. Kate has a way of kindling a warmth and optimism that-makes life feel better. By the end of the evening I knew what her doorman meant when he told me: "Every time I see her walking in it gives me a good feeling. She's so alive, it makes me feel alive too. She's good people."