She is talking with fire in her eyes and her lithe suntanned body, the essence of which is revealed in a spare, flame-colored sundress, is fairly quivering with barely-suppressed emotion.
"When you are a member of a large family," she is saying crisply, obviously referring to herself, "there is an inherent competitiveness among the horde of children. The rivalry is never discussed openly. Who has the time? But what you end up with is this incredible need for attention.
Actress Kate Mulgrew, who played "Mrs. Colombo" on the television series of the same name, has a natural sense of drama. When she utters the word incredible, she rolls her deep-set grayish eyes heavenward. It is a facial exclamation mark that is rife with meaning.
Mulgrew is the second-born of eight children and, being the oldest daughter, was cast in a surrogate mother role. "It's the last thing a big sister wants to be," she huffs with charm, the eyes on fire. "What the big sister really wants to do is get on with her own life." Later she is to say vehemently: "When I wanted to read a play, they had to have their baths. And when I wanted to take my bath, they had to be fed. . ."
She grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, "very Irish, very Catholic, very much the little mother" and her recollection of confused family life is a melange of the poignant and the outrageous. She draws a cartoon in a rapid stream of conversation:
"Dirty little hands, incessantly hungry mouths, screaming little people running over each other with track shoes and throwing buckets of paint at each other and having to wear my brother's underwear because, my gawd, one of my sisters stole mine right out of the washer!"
Young daughters who become substitute mothers before their own time often tend to be dreamers. They rely on their fantasies and imagination and inventiveness to escape from the pressure and chaos of reality. Mulgrew was no exception.
When she was 12 and in the fifth grade she wrote a poem and her teacher asked her to read it out loud. When she finished, her class broke into a hefty round of applause and:
"I knew then and there that the recognition I got at that very moment was the exploding bombshell that set off the rest of my life," she is saying. "I knew I wanted this to go on and on!" Now, recapitulating the moment, she sighs.
Kate Mulgrew, fifth grader, was slowly coming to her own indelible conclusions about satisfying, even quelling this profound hunger. "I began to realize," she says, arching her eyebrows significantly, "that recognition is born of superiority or precocity or achievement."
Then she says something that sisters who watch fathers applauding brothers will understand perfectly.
"My father showed great favor for my brothers who excelled in the athletic arena. And I said to myself: What the hell does it take to bat a ball? Hell, I'm going to bat my own ball."
As it turned out, her father, a building contractor, was far from supportive of her acting ambitions. When she expresses his original disdain - now he expresses pride - it is as if she is reading a play, taking her part and his part, sashaying through burned-in-the-brain dialogue swiftly.
"Daddy, daddy, please! I've got to work. How else can I get the money to take acting lessons. Oh, please! (Mind you, I was 13 and I was saying that I wanted to wait on tables after school and he was saying no to the whole damn plan.)
"For god's sakes, don't cry.
"I'm not crying, daddy. (Of course I was!)
"Look, whatever you do, I don't want to know anything about it. Understand? Well, do you?
"So I waited on tables and hid my money. One of my brothers stole the money. And when I went to my father about the theft he said, But I don't know anything about what you're doing so I don't know anything about the money.
"So I kept on working and my Mama showed me how to put my money in the bank but, still, in the end I needed $300 more to go to school.
"Daddy, daddy, please. I need it. Please, $300.
"And he said: You're so anxious to crash out of the gate that you're going to end up breaking your neck."
Kate, or Katie as she was called by the Mulgrew clan, didn't break her neck or her spirit.
When she was 14, she took an acting apprenticeship at Northwestern, a year later she went to the Univeristy of Minnesota and, when she was 17, she attended New York University. The road to the "Mrs. Columbo" series and, later, "Kate Loves a Mystery," was paved with rejections and disappointments and lost hopes.
But she was steeled by her family experiences.
"Listen," she says, "my brothers went for the jugular. They called me Chubby and they made fun of my braces and they asked why I didn't have a date. And they said: Miss Big Mouth is going to be a great actress, ho-ho-ho," she sing-songs."So what could intimidate me now?"
And there was her father's deep skepticism.
"In a way, his attitude toughened me. I know, now, that his disdain was well-motivated because, after all, I was just a kid. What in hell did I know about running off to be an actress? But, by the same token, his attitude gave me a bit of a crust. I figured: I'll show him. I'll show them all. . ." Talent agents, including her own, have told her that she comes on too strong, that she is too abrasive. "And I tell them," she retorts feistily, "that I have been especially trained for this business."
"By whom?" agents ask, not knowing what she means.
"The family," she says, dissolving in laughter.
Mulgrew is, of course, the sum total of her experiences. But there is a second unexpessed dimension to Kate Mulgrew who is currently starring in the Neil Simon play, "Chapter Two," at the North Shore Music Theatre.
She wants to be the mother of a large family.
"When I'm 85," she is saying, puffing mightily on a cigarette, "I don't want to have nothing but reviews. If it boils down to an absolute choice between career and children, I want a family."
"What else is there?," she asks, holding her gaze.
It's a rhetorical question because Kate Mulgrew is the consummate actress to whom acting is as natural as breathing. She won't give it up. She'll juggle family-career and, of course, she's got an elaborate plan that engulfs both. She will marry - but not have babies until she is 28 or 29, three or four years from now.
And then she'll have her babies "boom, one right after the other!"
"I will be so established and so admired that when I take time off to have babies, I will not be forgotten or, worse, pooh-poohed when I return to work. . ."
There's an Italian man in her life, a Florence-based shoe designer, Roberto Mewcci, whose diamond she wears and whose twice-monthly visits to her New York home she herself arranges. "I crave a large family," she is saying. "This man might be the right man. . ."
The story of Kate Mulgrew is a basic big-family story and of sibling rivalry and an overwhelming need for approval and applause.
"I don't want to analyze it or be Freudian about it," she says. "All I really know for sure is that in a large family, if you have something special it's a way of standing out in all of the chaos."