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Catherine Hicks cuts to the merry chase with 'Child's Play'

Actors are always sort of ambivalent about special-effects movies. They know the movie's likely to do well at the box office, but they feel strange about co-starring with the special effects. Alec Guinness observed, for example, that he spent most of the "Star Wars" saga standing in front of a blank blue wall, so that the special-effects guys could put in the visual effects months later. James Caan had a word for the visitors from outer space who were his co-stars in "Alien Nation." He called them "potato heads."

And now here is Catherine Hicks, in "Child's Play," doing many of her big scenes opposite Chuckie, a doll who looks like a cross between Howdy Doody and Peter Lorre. The movie is about how the doll is brought to life by a mass murderer who uses voodoo to possess it with his soul - something she doesn't know when she brings Chuckie home as a present for her young son. Before long, the doll has thrown the baby-sitter out the window and seems about to kill Hicks, her son and a friendly policeman.

"When I read the script, I thought it was a nice, big, chunky role," she was telling me the other day. "It had a lot of emotional transitions in it, and it would be challenging."

Come on, I said. You've always wanted to make one of those movies where you get to scream and run down long, threatening corridors and walk into rooms where the audience knows the monster is hiding.

She grinned. "Yeah, I shouldn't take everything so seriously," she said. "I wanted to have some fun, too. It is fun to chase and be chased. This is a hide-and-seek movie, although I didn't think a lot about that at the time. I looked down on it at first. I didn't even want to read the script when I heard it was a horror movie, but then I thought the script was sort of nicely adult and tongue in cheek, and smoothly written. It was fun. What am I going to tell you? And I liked the woman. I saw her as one of those people you see on the local news; she's not doing that well; she works at a department store; she's got a little boy to raise, and when bad things happen, she rises to the occasion. She becomes heroic, fighting for her family. I liked her for that.

"One of the reasons you take a role is because it's something you always wanted to do, from going to the movies as a kid. I always wanted to do a 1950s movie, for example. And I got a chance to be in 'Peggy Sue Got Married.' I would have taken only one line of dialogue to be in that."

It's like Rosanna Arquette saying she wanted to do "Silverado" even if she got cut out, I added, because it was her only chance to do a Western. Or James Belushi saying the greatest thing about "Red Heat" was that he'd always wanted to run down La Salle Street at midnight, waving a .357 magnum.

"We're not brain surgeons," Hicks said. "It's just movies. And to take everything so seriously and weigh every choice and think that the whole business is watching your every move, career-wise, is just silly. None of us is that important. I say work, if it's not embarrassing, and you can taste a different flavor. Don't you get tired of career analysis?"

Yeah, I said. This was over lunch in Chicago, where Hicks was promoting "Child's Play" (now at local theaters) and going shopping and preparing to fly up to Appleton, Wis., to see a "friend" who I think was probably her boyfriend, from the way she blushed when she said she didn't want to talk about why she was going to Appleton, while the subject got changed to how Appleton was the birthplace of Harry Houdini.

"I've always been sort of ambiguous about being an actress," she said. "I'm still trying to get into the theater department. I still feel illegitimate. I probably never will feel like a valid actress. It's like, if you're not hugged in the first two months of your life, you'll never fill that gap. Or like when I was in grade school, and a girl named Gracie got all the leads while I was playing a squid tentacle. I can never make up for that. In fact, I went back for a reunion, and there they all were, and I was still in awe of them."

And yet Catherine Hicks has had more than a measure of success in recent years. In "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986), she was the '80s woman who fell in love with Adm. Kirk, and returned to the future with him. Her other movies include not only "Peggy Sue Got Married" but "Garbo Talks," and on TV she starred in "Marilyn: The Untold Story." She is proudest of having co-starred with Jack Lemmon on Broadway in "Tribute."

So how, I asked her, did you get into acting?

"I noticed the drama majors on campus, when I was at Notre Dame. They just seemed to be freer spirits than the rest of us. There was joy in their work; they were the only ones studying something whose work made them happy. I envied that. And they were a community, a family; they clung together by themselves. They had a secret, and I wanted to find out what the secret was."

You majored in English and theology?


How did you adjust to the ruthlessness of Hollywood?

"Yeah. Well, it's one thing when you're in school, and you might be appearing in the great plays at night. It's another thing when you leave the campus and you have to get an agent, and compete. Basically, actors are shy, and you're called on to do things that are hard for you. It's hard to be competitive. It's hard for me to be mean, cutthroat and bitchy. Some people who are more that way get through it faster. I decided I can't fake it.

"What you have to do is hold on to the memory of how sweet it is to act. How it's playful, it's magic. That'll get you through the hard parts in your apartment when you don't know when it's going to happen again. You're either hot or you're cold in this business. If you're cold too long, you don't get a chance to be hot again. It's very scary to me."

When you know that Chuckie the Doll is about to attack, I said, but your character doesn't know, how do you keep a straight face? How do you keep from showing anticipation?

"You think about something else. You can smell that sometimes in the movies, when people anticipate. In kissing scenes, I can always tell, because they lick their lips. The person who is going to initiate the kiss is licking their lips for about three minutes before the kiss. Maybe I do it myself. But I get mad when I do."

And what, I asked, completing the survey of what it is like to be an actress, what do you like the least about the job?

"People always want you to look pretty. I would like to live in the Midwest in a small town and never put makeup on. But they won't let you do that. Once I went through a period when I did do that, wore no makeup, wore my hair any which way, and people looked at me like I was a bum."

Which you are not.

"Sometimes I wish."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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