Bess Armstrong, Baltimore-born, tailors her career around a favorite role: that of mother


October 21, 1990|By Mary Corey

Signs of motherhood:

She arrives for an interview with her 2 1/2 -year-old son's lunch splattered across her black shorts. She grows distracted when a stranger's child throws a tantrum nearby. She meticulously tidies up the table after lunch, carrying not just her own, but others' dirty cups and plates to a trash can.

No doubt about it, Bess Armstrong -- the Baltimore-born actress now starring in the ABC sitcom "Married People" -- takes her role as a mother very seriously.

Sitting in the courtyard of Cross Keys with her movie producer-husband John Fiedler, she has come home for a family christening and excitedly describes the anarchy in her parents' Ruxton house as she prepared to leave:

"My son was doing a 51-piece puzzle on the floor of the kitchen. I was trying to cook dinner. My mother was trying to get the dogs into the car because they have fleas. My brother was on the floor with his 5-month-old baby, and my father's wandering around the kitchen going, 'Uh, is this a knife?'. . . because I think twice in 40 years he's had to cook himself lunch.

"But my feeling is that's sort of the way a family should be. I like it, even though we all go semi-hysterical."

As she speaks, there's a youthful exuberance to the 36-year-old actress. Dressed in a gray sweater, shorts and black suede flats, her golden brown hair tucked simply behind her ears, she looks like she could still pose for her Bryn Mawr School yearbook.

Only the sunglasses, a pair of very trendy tortoise-shell shades, suggest the life of a rich or famous actress who lives in L.A. (She quickly confesses, however, that due to her son's penchant for demolishing them, she now only buys dime-store styles.)

Looks, however, only tell part of the story. In conversation, Bess Armstrong is direct, witty and articulate. She can be savagely funny in describing how Hollywood treats women over 30 and brutally honest when revealing her insecurities about working with her husband.

Or, she can be poignantly open in describing how the short life of the couple's severely disabled daughter, Lucy, forever changed her life.

In 1986, after a healthy pregnancy, Ms. Armstrong delivereda baby girl whose brain was underdeveloped. For the next six months, she and her husband cared for Lucy, whom they were told would never walk, talk or even understand they were her mother and father. In January 1987, the child died in her mother's arms.

"She was wonderful and we loved her," Ms. Armstrong says in a measured, calm voice. "The enduring gift that our daughter, Lucy, has given to us as a family is that there's really nothing we take for granted. Just nothing."

After her death, Ms. Armstrong became pregnant again and gave birth to a healthy son, Luke. Having endured tragedy with her first child, she resolved to take part in as much of his upbringing as possible. She refused scripts for hour-long TV programs, declined offers to do location work and made a deal with her husband to not be apart for more than two weeks at a time.

Those decisions had a dramatic effect on her career. "It really did put me out of the business for two years," she says. "The business is very fickle. They make assumptions that if you've dropped out of sight, it's for professional reasons. It was a harder climb back up. It was very frustrating, but it was necessary. There was nothing to do but go through it."

It's seems particularly fitting then that she should return to a TV sitcom, playing a pregnant working woman. In "Married People," which airs Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. on WJZ-TV (Channel 13), she portrays a yuppie lawyer living with her writer-husband in an apartment building that also houses two other couples.

When executive producers Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser were creating the part, they had Bess Armstrong in mind. "We've just always thought she's terrific," says Mr. Sternin. "She represents the ideal WASP, blond goddess, but she's such a real, wholesome, warm person."

Although the show has generally received lukewarm reviews, some critics have singled Ms. Armstrong out as the program's saving grace. While a writer in USA Today panned the show, he praised her performance, saying she brings "pep, and a little bite, to her role."

Not that she would know any of this, of course. After her 1986 series "All is Forgiven" was canceled, she gave up reading what others said about her.

"That show got these brilliant reviews and everybody said, 'Buy land in the south of France. You're going to be on forever.' . . . and it was off the air in four weeks," she recalls.

And although she has worked on TV sitcoms, miniseries and in motion pictures such as "The Four Seasons," "High Road to China," and "Nothing in Common," a real blockbuster has eluded her so far.

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