Fame finally catches up with Mercedes Ruehl

October 30, 1991|By Carrie Rickey | Carrie Rickey,Knight-Ridder

LOS ANGELES -- If you caught Mercedes Ruehl in her Tony Award-winning performance as the woman-child "Lost in Yonkers," or as the jealous spitfire in "Married to the Mob," you knew that she was possessed of a tall talent. But did you also know that Ruehl's legs stretch from here, her sylvan apartment at the Hotel Bel-Air, up to the Canadian border?

Clad in a gauzy, leaf-green tunic and bicycle shorts baring endless calf, Ruehl brings to mind an Amazon jungle queen. The skin glows copper. The brown-black curls twine like tendrils.

Then she opens her mouth.

What comes out is a resounding operatic tone that can be described only as "brasso profundo," something like Roz Russell meets Cher. Fingering a ringlet, Ruehl grieves in a deep, metallic voice that it's "the result of a slowly dying perm."

Looks like a goddess; tawks like a broad.

In "The Fisher King," Terry Gilliam's modern fable about the search for the Holy Grail, Mercedes Ruehl's captivating Anne Napolitano describes the elusive relic as "Jesus' juice glass." Although in person Ruehl is as personably blunt as Anne, a Manhattan video-emporium owner who tries to save Jeff Bridges who in turn tries to save street-person Robin Williams, the convent-educated actress is never flip about things spiritual.

Glib, no; whimsical, soytainly. Ask Ruehl how old she is, and she replies with grande dame hauteur, "You may say my father purchased me from Gypsies sometime in the '50s."

Ruehl's father is a retired FBI agent, which caused the actress mild embarrassment when she appeared as Fed-baiting Mafia wife Connie Russo in "Married to the Mob." Ruehl's mother is a grade-school teacher. Her brother, Peter, a journalist (formerly with The Evening Sun), is "11 months and one day older than I," she confides. Whether he hailed from the same tribe of Gypsies, the actress does not say.

Because of her father's Company business, "by the age of 8, I'd moved from New York to Indiana to Pennsylvania to New Jersey," finally settling in Silver Spring, Md. Although she was educated by nuns, Ruehl concedes, "I was never, even in my most dramatic moments, thinking of entering the novitiate." And although fame has come to Ruehl relatively late -- she looks closer to 40 than to 30 -- she found her vocation early.

"I feel almost chosen by acting rather than choosing it," Ruehl says. "Except for the two minutes when I was 9, when I wanted to be a vet, I was always doing theatricals, always rounding up the gang to perform."

Upon arriving in New York in the '70s, Ruehl figured that it would take her 2 1/2 years to become a successful actress. "It took closer to 15 years," Ruehl says with a rueful laugh, describing her checkered career as "one of those obnoxious actress-waitresses . . . who gave the impression that I had a much more fascinating life than could be communicated by the fact that I was waiting on you."

In the early '80s, Ruehl joined the Denver Theater Company, where her most memorable role was "Medea," but where she also essayed parts in Shaw's "Misalliance" and Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing." She enjoyed her regional stardom, "but when I came back to New York in 1984, I was ready to give up. I was tired of living like a graduate student. I thought it was time to take a vocation more seriously than acting was taking me."

In 1985 she considered returning home to Maryland, applying for a job with the phone company, when a call came from playwright Albert Innaurato asking her to be in his off-Broadway production "Coming of Age in Soho." "It took 15 years to get that call," Ruehl says.

After 15 years of auditions and regional theater, "Coming of Age" was Ruehl's New York debut. So terrified was she during the play's early performances at the Public Theater that she came onstage and planted herself behind an upholstered chair. "It was like someone yanking me back into show biz," she says. "It was frightening." But she came out from behind the chair and earned raves.

"When dominoes begin to fall, they fall swiftly," she says. There was Christopher Durang's "The Marriage of Bette and Boo," for which she won an Obie. "And then I'm on Broadway with Judd Hirsch in "I'm Not Rappaport." She played the Ex-Lax girl in Woody Allen's "Radio Days."

"Then Penny Marshall cast me as Tom Hanks' mother in "Big." And during "Big," I was introduced to Jonathan Demme," who cast her as the florid Connie Russo in "Married to the Mob," a role for which the National Society of Film Critics cited her as best supporting actress of 1988.

Come April, she might have to make room for an Oscar, because her role as Anne Napolitano in "The Fisher King" is of that caliber.

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