March 22, 1979
by Cecil Smith
THE WAY the networks are playing Russian roulette with their series these days - thrusting new ones on, pulling them off, switching schedules around — you not only can’t tell the players without a scorecard, you can’t tell them with one. A CBS executive said the other day as he was announcing a dozen new changes: “The poor viewer must be confused. I wonder what he thinks.” I know what he thinks. He doesn’t give a damn.
I can’t give much of a damn about “Mrs. Columbo,” though that second episode in the brief series, in which Donald Pleasence gave one of his precise and brilliant comic performances, was delicious to watch. I do give a damn about Kate Mulgrew, who plays Mrs. Columbo.
But I don’t think Kate gave much of a hoot about the series. Though she was properly annoyed when announcements came out that “Mrs. Columbo” was cancelled — “How could we be cancelled? We only agreed to make six hours, the two-hour pilot and four episodes.”
Kate could not have done more if she’d been asked. She was due in Ireland to play the tragic Irish princess Iseult in a new film of the medieval classic, “Tristan and Iseult.” In the film, she said, Richard Burton will play King Mark of Cornwall, and Nicholas Clay is the young knight Tristan.
If you know your Celtic legends, you will remember that the Cornish king dispatched Tristan to bring Iseult back to be his queen. Tristan slew a dragon to win fair Iseult but these two young people fell deeply in love. Nonetheless, dutiful Tristan delivered her to King Mark and they were married. But the love of Trisan and Iseult never wavered.
“Our story,” Kate said, “covers six centures and examines all the legends about the lovers. I don’t really know too much about it, but I can’t wait to gaze into Richard Burton’s weathered face….”
Live, on Film
She was called back to the set to gaze in to the smooth faces of Sam Groom and Claudette Nevins in an edition of “Mrs. Columbo” about the murder of a caterer (the episode is scheduled to air tonight at 10, but the way things are going at NBC, who knows?). The show was produced as close, I suppose, to live television as you can get on film – the celluloid was barely out of the can before it went on the air.
“I don’t know how we’ve done it,” said Kate. “Working seven days a week, 15-to-16 hours a day — it’s been murder. There’s no chance for performance. You just want to get through it. What you get is what you would expect to get — soap opera level television.”
Not that young Kate Mulgrew — she’s 23 — scorns the soaps. She came out of one. She spent 2½ years playing Mary Ryan in ABC’s “Ryan’s Hope.” Though she fled the soap as quickly as she could, leaving the moment her contract ran out, she says: “I’m enough of a logician to know that everything that has happened to me happened because of Mary Ryan.”
Which includes the part of David Janssen’s salty, sexy mistress in “The Word,” and though she dismisses the eight-hour epic series as “Janssen’s Tour of Europe,” she says she learned a great deal doing it, particularly working with such master actors as Nicol Williamson, Ron Moody and Hurd Hatfield.
She also played a sexy mistress in the recent “Jennifer: A Woman’s Story.” The part she liked best was as a sexy country-western singer in an episode of “Dallas.” Do these sensuous women she’s played give her pause? “For an Irish Catholic girl from Dubuque, Iowa, I’ll say,” she said.
“Ryan’s Hope” was responsible for “Mrs. Columbo.” “Fred Silverman was at ABC when I left the soap,” she said, “and he personally asked me to stay on. When I told him I couldn’t, I had to move on, he said he’d have something else for me. He called and offered me ‘Mrs. Columbo.’ I trust Freddie. If he says it’s right for me, it’s right for me.”
She has no quarrel with the concept for the series as developed by Richard Alan Simmons out of the hugely successful NBC-Universal series “Columbo” with Peter Falk. Despite the silly notion that Lt. Columbo in that moth-eaten raincoat may turn up at any moment to greet his wife, daughter and basset hound, Kate’s vitality and bubbling Irish humor gave the program a certain panache that too few have. The stories were a bore but Kate was fun to spend an hour with. And considering what else NBC has shown us this spring -the dreadful “Supertrain,” choked in its hardware; the mildewed hokum of “Sweepstakes” and “Cliffhangers” — it might not be a bad idea to bring Mrs. C. back next fall. Though the ratings nonsense may preclude it; NBC wants instant hits or nothing. (Nothing is what they’re getting.)
A Veteran Newcomer
It’s rather surprising to find Kate Mulgrew so confident and assured an actress at her tender age. In fact, when you talk with her, you tend to forget she’s NOT a veteran trouper with a dozen seasons of Shakespearean repertory behind her. Perhaps that’s the reason she’s usually cast as older than she is — her various mistresses and Mrs. Columbo hover around 30.
“In the Mulgrew family, confidence went with the territory,” said Kate. “Confidence and discipline. You had to be an achiever. It was expected of you.”
She was the second oldest of eight children of a wealthy contractor who expected much from his kids. When she was 12, she said she came to the realization “that the world was full of countless possibilities, if you had the talent and the guts to realize them; I sometimes think the most important thing is the guts.” From the time she recited a poem at school — Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” — and watched the reaction of her audience, she knew she would be an actress.
Shipped to New York University to study, she “borrowed” her tuition money, rented an apartment and began the study of acting with Stella Adler, one of this country’s greatest teachers. At 19, she was playing Emily in “Our Town” at the Stratford, Conn., Festival Theater, when she was tapped for Ryan’s Hope by its creator, Claire Labine. New York is still home to her; she has no use for California. She stepped out of the darkness of a soundstage to be bathed in warm sunshine, shivered and said: “Ugh, doesn’t it ever rain out here?” Marriage is somewhere in the far future — but not too far, she wants 10 children.
The film in Ireland, “Tristan and Iseult,” is also a result of Ryan’s Hope — Claire Labine adapted the legend and assembled the package. Tom Donovan will direct. I asked Kate if she plans to seek out her roots in Ireland.
“No,” she said, “I wouldn’t dare. Knowing the Mulgrews, I’m afraid of what I might find.”
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