LOS ANGELES - How can I ever forget the first time I talked with Marilu Henner? It was a couple of years ago, right after the movie "Blood Brothers" was released. She called on the telephone.
"Hello," she said. "This is Marilu Henner. Remember me? You wrote some nice things in the paper about my performance in 'Blood Brothers'?"
Uh, yeah? I said.
"But you may not remember my name," she said, "because you ran the wrong name in the paper. That was me you were writing about, but you used another actress' name."
Whoops, I said. I must have gotten the cast credits confused.
"You must have," she said.
I'm really sorry, I said.
"Well," she said, "I come from Chicago and my family thought it was nice that you liked my performance, but they weren't too crazy about the fact that you gave another actress credit for it."
I can well understand that, I said.
"So don't do it again."
It was the sort of mistake you could make, since Marilu Henner wasn't too overwhelmingly famous back then. It's not the sort of mistake you could make now, though, with Marilu starring on TV's "Taxi" and being interviewed in McCall's about her relationship with closest friend John Travolta. So it was with a slight hesitancy that I went to interview Marilu on the location of "Hammett," a new hard-boiled, private-eye movie she's starring in.
"Well, you know how it is," she said. "When you're a kid from Logan Square in Chicago and you get a role in a movie and your family is looking for your name in their hometown paper and it's somebody else's name..."
Your family still lives in Chicago? I asked, adroitly altering the subject.
"You bet," she said. "All except for my brother Tom, who has moved out here. They live on Logan Blvd., near Fullerton and Western. I went to Madonna High School at Pulaski and Belmont, and then to the University of Chicago. I spent my freshman year there, learning a lot, I guess. I did a lot of work in theater all through high school - community theater, Hull House, wherever I could.
"That was when 'Grease' was opening at the Kingston Mines. I didn't audition for a part because I thought I should stay in college. I was studying political science. Then, eventually, I did work in the national company of 'Grease,' which sort of amazed me, you know, because I never thought 'Grease' would travel. I mean, how could it work outside of Chicago, with all those Chicago references? The subtle nuances of a line like, I got knocked up by some guy I met in Melrose Park.
"The companies of 'Grease' were filled with a whole generation of young actors. Like James Canning...He's also from Chicago. He was in 'The Boys In Company C.' We were like a family. I still see those people. I never go back to Chicago without dragging someone along with me, to meet everyone. Chicago's the best kept secret in the U. S. It's the most 24-hour city in the country. It's next to my heart."
We were having this conversation far from Logan Square, in a large mobile dressing room somewhere out in the wilds of Malibu. The "Hammett" company was shooting on location. The movie's being directed by Wim Wenders, one of the brilliant young directors of the German New Wave; it's his first big Hollywood film, and is being produced by Francis Ford Coppola.
The movie stars Frederic Forrest, the Oscar nominee from "The Rose" as the great private eye novelist Dashiell Hammett. Marilu gets second billing, and described her role as "the downstairs neighbor who's sort of his girlfriend. She's a legal secretary, and I think she's supposed to be originally from Chicago."
Marilu was being made up for the afternoon's shooting schedule, and people wandered through the trailer looking for things like, for example, fake blood. I asked Marilu what it was like being famous all of a sudden, thanks to the big ratings of "Taxi" and the magazine covers and everything.
"Well," she said, "it has taken a while and I'm still getting used to it. In New York, I did about 28 TV commercials and nobody recognized me because I was always different. I played everyone from the Samsonite Luggage Girl to Annie Sullivan, who was Helen Keller's teacher. I remember once I got a trip to Venice, Italy - the only time I've been out of the country - to shoot a TV commercial about, ring-around-the-collar. I had fantasies of the motorboat sinking and I'd never be identified, because nobody in Italy had ever seen me before."
But now, with "Taxi."
"I have to be honest," she said, "I especially like being recognized when I'm with a member of my family, so they'll believe I've really been successful and it's not just a fantasy. There are problems, though, when I'm with my sister, because she's the kind of person everyone talks to. Ten people in a row will ask her where the bathroom is, and ignore me.
"Sometimes, though, I wish they would ignore me. Sometimes I look like myself, and sometimes I go out of the house looking like a mess and when, people ask me if I'm Marilu Henner I'm ashamed to admit it. In the grocery store the other day, I just said, No, but thanks for the compliment. I think she's very attractive."
Has anything really changed for you since you moved to Los Angeles?
"I own my own place. I bought my apartment. Also, I eat better. Macrobiotic rice, fish, chicken, super healthy...that's for out here. When I go back home to Chicago, I pig out. I love Giordano's pizza. And I go to the Original Pancake House and eat apple pancakes. It's like Chicago and Los Angeles are two different universes. Out here, life is like a whole lot of balancing plates. Remember? That act on Ed Sullivan's Show where they'd keep all the spinning plates balanced on top of the poles? That's what you do out here. The hardest plate to keep balanced is the love life plate. The weather plate is balanced all the time."
An assistant director stuck his head in the door and announced that Miss Henner was wanted on the set.
I said thanks a lot for the interview.
Marilu grinned. "Henner," she said. "Try to remember the name."