American Record Guide
|Terry, Clifford. "Lifestyle/TV Record: Ego Really
Isn't Her Thing." Record 9 February 1986: 3.
Ego Really Isn't Her Thing
by Clifford Terry
STEPHANIE VANDERKELLEN, the state of Vermont's own material girl and ego-in-residence at Norwich's Stratford Inn (established 1774), has been called everything from a thoughtless, selfish child to a high-bred brat. And that comes from her boyfriend.
It is claimed that the Carly Simon song, "You're So Vain," was inspired by Warren Beatty, but watchers of the Monday night CBS sitcom "Newhart," know better.
Played by Julia Duffy, herself a mere middle-class child from Minnesota, Stephanie is the spoiled rich girl-turned-maid who works for Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart), the New England innkeeper and host of the local TV talk show, "Vermont Today." She is also the girlfriend of equally egotistical Michael Harris (Peter Scolari), the producer of that show who comes up with such guest ideas as a man who does "hand-shadows of vice presidents."
Not that Michael would ever call Stephanie a name to her face. (She discovered the epithets by breaking into his diary.) What he usually calls her is Cupcake, prompting Loudon one night to explain that she was upstairs "blow-drying her frosting."
Petulant and pouty, Stephanie herself says things like, "Oh, poo," and, when asked to water her friend's plants when he's out of town, moans, "This is turning into a nightmare."
She also does things like throw her slipper with fatal accuracy at hermit thrushes that wake her up in the morning. "Why can't wildlife sleep in?" she recently asked in all self-centered seriousness. (Told by George, the Tom Poston caretaker-character, that killing songbirds is against the law, she casually dialed the wildlife commission and purred: "I was having a discussion with one of my girlfriends about things like hair-streaking, leg-waxing, and songbirds. I was telling her it wasn't that big a deal to kill a songbird.... Oh, it is?... Well, I can't believe you enforce a silly law like that and allow people who paint bullfighters on velvet to go scot-free."). This is the third season Duffy has played the part, a replacement for the first-year character, Stephanie's cousin Leslie (Jennifer Holmes), a pretentious Dartmouth student who took off for England to continue her education, and, in a phone interview, the actress makes it quite clear her own background is considerably different, even though, when she was 12, her family did move to an affluent suburb of Minneapolis.
"We probably lived in what were the slums of Edina , which seems pretty funny," Duffy said. "My mother was a widow, she remarried when I was 17, and raised four girls by herself, working as a secretary and later in real estate. I really had a financially difficult childhood, the opposite of Stephanie's. Everyone I knew was richer than me; they seemed to live incredible lives, going on skiing vacations and all.
"I wanted to be an actress very badly, but I didn't have any desire to be a comedienne. I was never the classroom cutup or anything. I was very serious about a dramatic acting career. I was in awe of stage actresses, especially Julie Harris; I thought The Member of the Wedding' was just wonderful. I didn't watch old comedies then. Now, I'm a real Marx Brothers fan, but as a kid, I thought they were stupid.
"Even today, I think doing comedy is just an outgrowth of my being an actress. I mean, I'm not the kind of person who is on' all the time.
Unlike stand-up comics, I don't have the need to make people laugh, unless I'm playing a funny part. Offstage, I couldn't care less."
After attending the University of Minnesota for a year, Duffy went off in the early Seventies to New York and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, followed up by work in regional theater, commercials, and soap operas. It was on the now-defunct "Love of Life," in fact, where she met Jerry Lacey, who became her husband. "I played a little drug pusher. I was a real bad girl. He played a heartthrob, matinee-idol type. I also played a bad teen-ager on The Doctors.' She constantly broke up marriages and had a brain tumor and went blind and killed her stepfather."
Like Julie Harris, as her career progressed, Duffy seemed to be the eternal ingénue. "I was one much longer than is natural, because I've always looked so young." (Asked her present age, though, she demurs. "Just tell them I'm 26.") "Playing young girls who are supposed to look pretty and have nice little lives can become kind of unfulfilling, but I began to realize that there also could be something very funny about that. So my playing Stephanie was kind of a gradual process.
"I think she's a complex, paradoxical character. She's very arrogant, and yet very vulnerable. She's sophisticated, and yet she's incredibly naive, because she's been living in an ivory tower. There's so little that she really knows. The ways in which she's sophisticated are kind of useless, really, if you live in the real world. But she's certainly not an airhead. I think it's more attitude with her, rather than brains. She's never had to make decisions or think things through, and so she doesn't."
Duffy concedes there's a fine line between displaying Stephanie's spoiled nature and making her totally obnoxious. "It's difficult because the writers and I have to agree on where to draw that line. If an episode is about Stephanie, you can go much further because there will be something redeeming that will happen. In a show where I'm lighter, where she just sort of comes in and complains and goes out, then I'll be much more careful about what I say because I don't want to leave just that one impression."
Duffy had made a guest appearance as Stephanie on "Newhart," and was signed on as a regular after the departure of CBS's short-lived series, "Wizards and Warriors," in which she played Princess Ariel, like Stephanie, spoiled and vain, but, Duffy says, "dumber."
Subsequently, she twice was nominated for an Emmy.
Working with Newhart, she says, is a pleasure. "Offstage, he isn't quite as laid-back as the characters he plays, and his sense of humor isn't as dry. It's probably wilder than you'd think," Duffy says.
Contractually, the show is set to run three more seasons after this, and after that she has an agreement she'll do something else with the MTM producers, perhaps star in her own series.
As for now, the key issue is that Julia Duffy is expecting. Due date: May 1. "We finish shooting in mid-March, and my pregnancy won't be dealt with in the script. We'll just try to shoot around it, although it gets more and more difficult every time."
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