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Valerie Bertinelli Poised For Leap From Little To Big Screen

January 11, 1986|NANCY MILLS

Valerie Bertinelli has added some heavy roles to her resume in recent months.

--Sunday night, in the CBS movie "Rockabye," she portrays a distraught young mother whose 3-year-old son is kidnaped in a New York department store. The movie focuses on her determined efforts to get him back.

--Last October she starred in "Silent Witness," a TV movie in which she played the sister-in-law of a rapist whose crime she witnessed. Against the wishes of her family, she eventually decided to testify against him.

--In 1984 the young actress starred in another thought-provoking TV movie, "Shattered Vows," about a nun who left the convent because she wanted to marry.

Bertinelli made her name as one of the daughters in "One Day at a Time," a popular CBS sitcom that started in 1975 and ran for nine years. How did she jump from light comedy to such heavyweight TV movie roles?

Eliza Doolittle had Prof. Henry Higgins to help redefine her image. Bertinelli has Jack Grossbart. He has been orchestrating his Bertinelli campaign for seven years, ever since he became her agent. He is now her manager.

On paper, his plan seems simple. First, Bertinelli would become a household name through "One Day at a Time." Second, she would star in talked-about television movies. Third (and yet to happen), she would appear in top-quality feature films.

Eager to reach this final plateau where she can "do a feature film for three months and then relax," Bertinelli takes to heart what Grossbart tells her.

"Valerie is terrific to work with," he says. "She listens to what we have to say, and 98% of the time she takes our advice."

"We" is Grossbart and his partner, Marty Litke, of Litke/Grossbart Management. Litke was once Bertinelli's manager.

"When Valerie was 18, she wanted to make the move into feature films or TV movies," Grossbart explains. "We picked her first TV movie--'Young Love, First Love' (1978) with Timothy Hutton. The part was a young girl coming to terms with her sexuality. We said, 'This she should do, even if she's not paid a lot of money.' The point was to get something under her belt that was different."

Since then, Grossbart has charged ahead with his plan to make Bertinelli into a mainstream star. Nobody has interfered, least of all Bertinelli or her family.

Her husband, rock star Eddie Van Halen, is too busy with his own career to offer more than general all-around support. "Ed gets jazzed by my working," Bertinelli reports. "He says, 'Honey, you'll be so terrific. You'll blow people's minds!' "

"Valerie could be very content sitting at home with her husband the rest of her life," Grossbart believes. Bertinelli agrees.

Sitting in the backyard of her Malibu beach home, her freckled face to the sun, brown curly hair streaming down her back, she says, "I hate to admit it, but I guess I'm not that committed to my career. I get real lazy. If it happens, it happens. Sometimes if I don't get a part, I'm really devastated--it hurts for a while. Then Ed and I take off for Sausalito.

"The only career decision I've really made," she adds, echoing Grossbart, "is to pick parts not like Barbara Cooper (her 'One Day at a Time' character). Barbara was mostly me, the sweet, naive side of me."

"Valerie is very motivated when she works," Grossbart observes. "But when she sits around, she loses her motivation."

"Sometimes I like to have challenges," she says. "Usually I try to avoid them. Usually I'll think to myself, 'I'll live off this residual this eek.' "

Grossbart began Phase Two of his master plan when Bertinelli's seven-year contract for "One Day at a Time" expired. To convince her to stay on for an eighth year, CBS made two commitments for TV movies produced by her company. And she agreed to a ninth year when the network offered another TV movie commitment.

Those commitments gave Grossbart the control he sought. "I'm very promotion-oriented," he says. "I felt we should go for movies that the media wanted to write about." Their first two choices--"Mail Order Bride" and "The Seduction of Gina"--did well in the ratings, but they didn't really excite the media. Then came "Shattered Vows." It was manna from heaven.

"Valerie said to me, 'I don't know why anyone will watch this movie,' " Grossbart recalls. He knew better. "Besides being about a serious subject--a nun giving up a religious life--'Shattered Vows' was very titillating, plus it was a true story, plus the woman it was based on was willing to go out and promote it."

Of "Rockabye," which he and Litke produced, Grossbart says, "I read it and said, 'This is a terrific story, although it's not as important as 'Shattered Vows' or 'Something About Amelia.' It's the kind of role Farrah Fawcett did with 'The Burning Bed.' In this part, Valerie doesn't worry about changing her clothes or putting her makeup on. This can put her in a whole different category."

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