Comes on like a Mack truck'
That's Kate Mulgrew, TV's 'Mrs. Columbo'
By Lewis Grossberger
One day Columbo died. Its audience died along with it. Peter Falk hung up the raincoat and all those juicy ratings went down the drain. It looked like cold-blooded murder. NBC was bereft. Tears ran down the Big N.
Then a strange rumor was heard. The magic name was being resurrected. NBC was bringing Columbo back to life. Well, not quite. Actually, NBC was bringing back Columbo’s wife. Some functionary had gotten a hot idea: We can’t give ‘em Columbo? Then give ‘em Mrs. Columbo. No one had ever seen the old lady on screen, so you could sign whatever type you needed for the show. Let the Missus chew on those whodunits the way hubby used to.
It sounded great. The Big N smiled again. Terrific. All they needed now was a female equivalent of Peter Falk.
On a quiet morning, the future Mrs. Columbo sat in her apartment on Manhattan’s Central Park West, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes. Her name was Kate Mulgrew and her quiet mornings in Manhattan were numbered. In a couple of days she would be moving to Hollywood to star in a network show. In a couple of months, she might well be a household word. So who is Kate Mulgrew?
If you were expecting Janie Jiggly, you got it wrong. Kate Mulgrew has a personality—a strong one—and a mind of her own. She also has freckles, long brown hair, blue eyes, a rich, smoky voice and a slightly astonishing age, considering her new job. She is 23. She neither looks nor acts it. When asked, for instance, if she was surprised that TV stardom had come so quickly, she said nonchalantly, “No, I expected it.” No false modesty or insecurities on view. “I always was confident,” she said. ‘I never allowed myself to get insecure or I’d be waiting tables today.”
Kate Mulgrew is an unknown, except to one segment of the populance: soap-opera lovers. For two and a half years, she played Mary Ryan on Ryan’s Hope. It was a character that fitted her own personality. "When I watched the show,” said Kate’s older brother, Joe, a photographer, who was hanging around the apartment that morning, “it just seemed to me that Kate was in the room, that it was actually her, being herself.” Kate agreed, so I asked her to describe Mary Ryan. “Me,” she said. “Very Irish. American. Catholic. Middle class. Strong. Very strong. Comes on like a Mack truck.”
Kate’s entire career has come on like a Mack truck. Only four years ago, a would-be actress with no professional experience, she walked into the office of Stark Hesseltine, a New York actors’ agent. He asked her to read a scene. “I saw two or three minutes,” said Hesseltine, “and I stopped her and said, ‘That’s enough.’ I just knew there was something there. It’s an electricity.”
Hesseltine took her around to producers. On the same day, she read for Ryan’s Hope and for the American Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford, Conn. Both of them wanted her—and for starring roles. They had to learn to share her. That summer, Kate would tape the soap and then, two or three times a week, a limousine would whisk her to Stratford to play Emily in Thornton Wilder’s ‘0ur Town’. Sometimes she would learn her lines for next day’s Ryan’s Hope in the car coming back to New York.
The soap got high ratings, Kate got big fan mail and the producers loved her. But Kate didn’t love the show. It was teaching her the ropes, but it wasn’t fulfilling. When her contract expired and ABC asked her to renew, Kate said no. “I’d had it,” she said. “Two and a half years on a soap? I couldn’t do anything else. I couldn’t get out. I had to kill to do a play.”
ABC came at her with a lot of money, but Kate is strong-willed. “Freddie Silverman, who was then at ABC, begged her, through the producers, to extend her contract,” said Hesseltine. “He said he would give her her own series if she extended for another year.” Nope. Kate walked away from her biggest success. She went up to the Hartman Theatre in Stamford, Conn., and played Desdemona in “Othello,” which made her happy.
The independent spirit was in her early. She knew she wanted to be an actress when she was 12 years old. In fact, she remembers the exact moment it happened. She was called in school to recite a poem titled “The White Cliffs” and the audience response turned her on. “I was transported,” she said. “It was a wonderful feeling. If you can make a nun cry, you’ve got it made.”
That was in Dubuque, Iowa, where Kate was born and raised, along with seven brothers and sisters. She left five years ago for New York University, where studied with Stella Adler. But Kate was too impatient even for NYU and dropped out after a year. She wanted to start acting. This she had neglected to mention to her father, a paving contractor. “She took the tuition check anyway for the second year from my father,” said brother Joe. “I cashed it and got an apartment,” said Kate. “I deceived him. My mother knew. My mother and I were conspiring against my father.” She laughed. “He still claims that I owe him $15,000.”
Kate got the traditional job for struggling young actresses: waiting tables. She lived with three other women in a cramped apartment. “It was terrible; I thought I’d die,” she says of this dreadful phase of her life. It lasted all of about two months.
But back to Columbo. We left it dying, you recall, and “Mrs. Columbo” was nothing but a name. The brains at NBC had no fix on it and were certain only about what they didn’t want—an imitation. A rumpled crone with a shopping bag simply wouldn’t do it. The main question was: Who? Executives wandered the halls speaking names of actresses at each other. Including the name of Brenda Vaccaro, who reportedly was offered the role and turned it down. “At one time or another, just about everybody’s name came up,” said John T. McMahan, senior vice president of programs and talent. All they knew was, “We wanted someone who had presence on the screen and style.”
Kate had both and there were people at NBC who had noticed. Fred Silverman, for instance, who was now president. Of course, a 23-year old actress offered the title role in a primetime TV series jumps at it, right? Not Kate. Her first reaction “Forget it. I don’t want to do a series.” NBC pitched hard. Mr. Silverman wants you very much for this, wooed the execs. Kate went home and thought it over and this time she changed her mind. Why, she won’t say, except that she thinks Fred Silverman is a genius and trusts his judgment.
Hesseltine remembers Kate showing him a piece of paper on which she had carefully drawn two columns listing all the pros and cons. “She had thought it out very methodically,” he said, “which is her nature.”
Kate’s nature is complex. She has strong religious convictions, reawakened three years ago, she says, when her sister Tessie died of a brain tumor at the age of 12. “Everybody [in the family] kind of went nuts,” said Kate. “Those who didn’t drink prayed. A lot of us went back. My mother and myself.” She says, “Christ has always been the reason to live.”
On the other hand, Kate is fun loving. In fact, according to Joe, “She’s crazy. She loves to have a good time.” Kate laughed in agreement. “I dance on the radiators and ruffle strangers’ hair,” she kidded. “I have fun.”
She would like to write some day. She’d like to have children, too, though not soon. Marriage is far off. “I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole at this point,” she says. “I think that all men are pretty essentially creepy. I love men, but I think they all sort of hide behind things. I don’t think women do.”
Right now Kate is occupied with turning herself into Mrs. Columbo, a woman in her 3O's with an absentee husband and a seven-year-old daughter. Mrs. C takes ballet lessons and French classes and works as a stringer for a small newspaper, which conveniently brings her in contact with sordid outbreaks of violence. “And because of all my years of association with Columbo,” Kate explains, “I, being very clever, have sort of figured out how to solve mysteries.”
Beyond that, she couldn’t say much. She hadn’t seen a script yet. Here it was, less than three weeks before the show would start production and about a month and a half before its late February premiere, and NBC hadn’t even thought of picking out Mrs. Columbo’s first name. (When McMahon was asked what it was, a stunned silence ensued.)
No matter. Their star is ready to go. Kate says she isn’t
feeling nervous. And why should she? Just because a weekly chunk
of NBC prime is about to be dropped on her 23-year old shoulders? Nah.
Nervous isn’t her style. “I think it’s going to be fun,” she said.
Whether it will be fun for the viewers remains to be viewed, but if anyone
can give Mrs. Columbo the kiss of life, it’s probably Mulgrew.