Ariel Baaldorf in Unicorn of Death (1_46)

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Bawden, Jim:  "Newhart's Duffy Prefers Playing 2nd Banana."  The Toronto Star 28 September 1987, final ed., Entertainment sec.:  D7


Newhart's Duffy Prefers Playing 2nd Banana


by Jim Bawden


"People ask me if I'd like my own series," says Julia Duffy of The Newhart Show. "And they're surprised when I say no, not right now. I don't want to be another perky single girl living in the big city. I'd much rather be a second banana on a fine comedy series."

This is season No. 6 for the series, which never seems to win the big Emmy awards but quietly goes on its way as a model of writing and comedic acting. It returns tonight at 9 on Channels 5 and 4.

Duffy has one more year of her contract with the show, "and I have a development deal with CBS for a series after that. Ratings won't kill this show but Bob will probably just walk away as he did on his first series.

"I'm just not keen on rushing things. I don't think my character (Stephanie) could survive on her own in a spin-off. She is too extraordinary."

Duffy says she's been on the other side of TV "with a losing series called Wizards And Warriors. People didn't remember it even when it was on. So I know that sinking feeling when things are not going right. Being in a series that gets fine critical notices is much pleasanter."

When Wizards And Warriors ended rather abruptly, Duffy was transferred by CBS to Newhart. There was another actress there first, playing an over-educated maid called Leslie Vanderkellen. "She was Stephanie's cousin and she went away to Europe. I think she still might be there," jokes Duffy. "It was an example of a good actress being miscast. We all suffer through those moments. When she left there was an opening for me."

When Duffy stepped in, the travails of the inefficient maid suddenly caught viewers' attention. Stephanie has a boyfriend, the equally egocentric Michael Harri (Peter Scolari) whose local TV series, Vermont Today, has such guests as a man who does handshadows of the vice-presidents.

I recently talked with Duffy in the commissary on the Studio City TV lot in Los Angeles where Newhart is made. Up close, she is fine featured with beautiful porcelain skin. She's also tiny, about five feet. But there the comparisons with Stephanie must end.

"The first question people ask is why Steph works as a maid. But that was explained in one of my first episodes. She got married to a 72-year-old man for a very brief spell and her father threw her out. She had to find any job."

Duffy says she has done enough other parts so "people don't stop me and think I'm her. But I have gotten letters from people who say they're just like her. Perhaps not as exaggerated. 'I've got a girlfriend just like her,' is a standard comment. I'm no longer surprised!

"Up until then I'd been doing comedy and drama about evenly. I've found comedy is harder to sustain. Stephanie is a rather fantastic creature but viewers have to believe in her. They just can't say, 'Oh, go on.' I think we've accomplished this by having Bob Newhart and Mary Frann sort of adopt her. They are teaching her the world does not revolve around her beauty. But she's a very, very slow learner."

Duffy says Newhart is a slowly evolving series. Don't expect any sudden changes this season. "But it is character comedy so it's built on past episodes. If you see episodes from the first year and compare them with today's, well, every character has undergone changes." Duffy says her character's paradoxes are going to be explored a little more, the contrast between her sophistication and her complete lack of knowledge about the practical world.

Duffy's fine-boned beauty makes her a prime candidate for romantic drama. Indeed, she shone for years as the beauteous temptress on such soap operas as Love Of Life and The Doctors. "The pay is so wonderful, New York actors get stuck in soaps. I wasn't so hot because I kept wishing I could do a scene over, just one more time. On The Doctors I had a brain tumor, killed my stepfather, went blind, things like that.

"I'd probably be better at it now. It's a blur because we did it so fast. But if I were still doing soaps, I'd be depressed. My career has been a steady, slow progression. I don't like repeating myself."

Duffy says her character is as far removed from her real self as she can imagine. Her family was definitely not rich and spoiled. Duffy remembers one severe winter in New York City when she was checking coats and hoping to break into acting. "And somebody stole my coat. I never felt as bad."

She was born in Minneapolis, is one of four daughters of a secretary turned businesswoman. Her father died when she was young and Duffy says, "I always worked to get anything I wanted, which is as it should be."

She started acting in high school, made her professional debut at 18, then spent two years studying at New York's Academy of Dramatic Arts. She met her husband, fellow actor Jerry Lacy, when he joined the cast of Love Of Life. "I was having a ball as a crazed drug pusher. It was wonderful."

She made some independent movies, one of them, Cutter's Way, was quite good. "But I don't exactly put Wacko: The Motion Picture near the top of my credits. A crazed lawnmower killer was after me in that one. Nor Battle Beyond The Stars. On an independent, you work all day, do two or three takes of a scene and have to be fresh for 14 hours. The director is more concerned with sound and lighting. You're really on your own."

Duffy says the writing on Newhart "is just about the best anywhere. I can't help sounding gushy. But there is a balance in Stephanie's character. She's not a bubble head. She's completely wrapped up in herself. But viewers like her. She's not a rich bitch. You are supposed to spot her possibilities. That comes from the writers."


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