Wednesday, Nov. 3, 1982
Tin Roof another step in Kate Mulgrew's growing career
By Joan E. Vadeboncoeur
|Fred Silverman had tagged her for television
stardom. When the renowned network programmer was trying to restore NBC
to prominence, the Syracuse University graduate demonstrated his faith
in her talents by signing her for the title role in "Kate Columbo."
"Well, Fred was wrong," says a philosophical Kate Mulgrew.
The actress, currently playing her first Maggie in Syracuse Stage's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," chalks it all up to experience. "I was too young to be asked to be too competent and too prepared for something as big as a starring role in a series."
The raven-haired beauty hadn't intended to become a TV series star. After scoring a major success on the soap "Ryan's Hope," she had gone West briefly for a special guest role on "Dallas." Recalls the star, "I was J.R's mistress and there was some talk of my becoming a regular. That's when they called me about Mrs. Columbo. I told my agent I was not interested. I was interested in doing movies, but there was no point in talking about a series. My agent said, 'Katie, you're being rude. At least go see Fred Silverman.' "So I went to have lunch with him in his suite at NBC. He did the whole thing — clams on ice and champagne."
Silverman said yes
"He told me I could have anything I wanted. But I didn't believe him. I went directly to my lawyer and had him draw up a prospectus with these outrageous terms. Well, he said yes to everything.
It began well. "I liked the first version and I got to work with Boris Sagal and Sam Wanamaker as director. For a girl like me, having done a soap and a few other limited things, it was a fascinating time. I thought it would be over after one season and they wouldn't pick it up because the ratings weren't good," she says.
But NBC called for a second season and that's when Kate Mulgrew discovered the real trials and tribulations of network television. The actress recalls, "It was grueling work. I didn't stop for 10 weeks, and there were 16-hour days. I wrote scripts myself. I could write circles around those morons. No matter who wrote the scripts, Kate Columbo was always that snappy broad. It was redundant... I discovered you can't fight city hall."
To Silverman's credit, he kept in close contact. Says Miss Mulgrew, "He was always very straight and very nice. He would call up and say, 'We're not doing very well are we? What can we do to improve?' I said, 'Get me a staff who can write."'
Family's first performer
It is not as Kate Columbo, but Mary Ryan from 'Ryan's Hope' that people recognize the actress. It is a role she obtained while still in her teens. But Miss Mulgrew had been aiming toward an acting career since she was a subteen in Dubuque, Iowa.
"No one was a performer in my family, but we all have artists' temperaments. My mother is a painter and a very, very good one, if I may say so," explains the actress. "There were eight children, but two died. My ambition was a pretty sophisticated, odd thing for a 12-year-old. I appealed to my mother on an adult level and she knew I was serious. I started jumping grades and I went to college — a private girls' school — when I was 16. Then I went to New York University because I knew I had to be in New York if I was going to act.
"Well, I left at the end of my junior year. I waited on tables — a cocktail waitress — and I got an agent. I lied. I told his secretary I had an appointment. I knew if I got in, I'd be fine. Two weeks later, I was in 'Ryan's Hope' and right after that I got the role of Emily in the American Shakespeare Festival production of 'Our Town'. I taped the soap all day, then a limousine would take me to Stratford, Conn., for the play. I shared a house there and I was falling in love. Here I was, just 19, and I thought, "This is paradise — or the closest I'll ever get."
The strokes of luck began with obtaining the top notch agent, continued through the daytime drama and Stratford on to Hollywood. ABC also believed Silverman's assessment of the young woman's talents and sent her packing to Ireland, where she also had done a few segments for "Ryan's Hope."
There, she discovered what she calls her "champagne quirk" — the ability to work under the worst conditions, yet be "dizzy with energy."
"I spent seven months with 'Manions'. I was cold and sick and tired, but very high. I loved playing Rachel and I still miss her."
After she was back in the United States and yearning only for a hot bath, the actress' agent called to send her on an interview with horror film director Sean Cunningham. "We chatted for an hour and the next day I got the movie. They were looking for my type and I knew I'd get it. I know immediately with directors when I'm going to get a role."
Cunningham's 'A Stranger Is Watching' deflated the elation she felt after "Manions." Observes the star, "We shot so much below Grand Central Station. It was so depressing there." The film flopped at the box office.
Bonus — a husband
Her, most recent film is "Love Spell," in which she stars opposite Richard Burton and Geraldine Fitzgerald in the Tristan-Isolde love story. ''We filmed that in Ireland. I always seem to be going there. I love it, but enough is enough. Why can't I get a film in France?" she remarks with a chuckle.
Increasingly, Kate Mulgrew is devoting her acting to the theater. It has brought her an unexpected bonus — a husband.
"Last October, I contracted to do Regina in 'Another Part of the Forest' at Seattle Repertory," the actress begins. "I took one look at the associate director, Robert Egan, and said 'This is it'. I went back in March to do 'Major Barbara' and he proposed. We were married July 31."
Married life and the maturity of added years have changed Miss Mulgrew's outlook on life, she admits readily.
"I am certainly less caustic. I have always taken failure personally, which was a very indulgent approach. My values have shifted. It's no longer CAREER, CAREER. Now, it's all my husband. I just want to go back to Seattle and fix up the bungalow he bought a couple of years ago."