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Marsha Mason Finds Joy In The Work Ethic

February 16, 1986|RODERICK MANN

Marsha Mason has an office in Beverly Hills, a celebrated ex-husband, a new TV movie about to be aired and a lot of problems with the word indefatigable .

She sat in her Wilshire Boulevard office the other morning, drinking coffee, looking like the cat that got the cream, clearly delighted to be able to report that, after a couple of rather rotten years, this one seems to be shaping up nicely.

"At last," she said with a toss of her auburn hair, "I seem to be in control of my life once again."

She is friends, finally, with ex-husband Neil Simon. Her production company, Come Lately--so called "because I should have done it much sooner"--has three projects under development. There's a new man in her life, actor Lewis Smith. And her optimism is at an all-time high.

" '84 and '85 were not good years for me," she said. "The breakup with Neil affected me very badly for a long time. I was functioning but I had no enthusiasm for anything. I cried a lot. As I said to Neil at one point, 'I'm so tired of being sad.' But this year, everything seemed to change."

She spent most of the last two years in New York City, where she now has an apartment. She did a play there--Harold Pinter's "Old Times" with Jane Alexander. And she directed a critically acclaimed play, E. Katherine Kerr's "Juno's Swans," at the Second Stage Theatre.

Still, she remained despondent. What's given her back her joie de vivre is the formation of Come Lately, which she put together with agent-turned-producer Helene Shaw. They're planning a movie, "Potomac Fever," directed by Ted Kotcheff. They have a TV project, "The Rita Jensen Story," written by Carmen Culver. And Mason and Richard Dreyfuss, who last worked together in "The Goodbye Girl" in 1977, hope to reteam in a movie written by Larry Gelbart.

"So there's a lot going on which is exciting for me," she said. "I spend my days meeting and talking with talented young writers and directors. And Helene and I have a very good working relationship.

"I think we're a good team because she knows a side of the business that I don't. After I married Neil and came out here to California, I suddenly found myself with a film career. I never had to struggle like so many other actresses; it just happened. As a result, I never learned how studios work or how deals are made. I just showed up for work. I had a famous playwright writing scripts for me (among them, "The Goodbye Girl," "Chapter Two," "Only When I Laugh," "The Cheap Detective," "Max Dugan Returns"). It was wonderful. Now I'm having to start from scratch, learning about the business. Learning patience. Learning to be indefat . . . indef . . . what's the word for untiring?--inde. . . ."

Indefatigable .

"That's right. That's what I have to be."

One of the hardest jobs this four-time Oscar nominee had, she said, was convincing her own agents that she was serious about her production company.

"The usual assumption by everyone is that you've formed a production company to find projects for yourself. In part, I have. But I also want to be a viable company making movies even if I'm not in them. I've invested a great deal of money in all this"--she looked around the suite of offices. "I have to come up with the rent. So I've got to work on outside ventures as well."

One of the projects she enjoyed doing--and which helped to pay the office rent--is CBS-TV's "Trapped in Silence," which is due to air in early March.

In this, she plays a psychologist who specializes in "elective mutism"--the refusal to speak. The story details her battle to help a 17-year-old boy who has this problem. Based on an autobiographical story by Torey Hayden and directed by Michael Tuchner, who made the TV film "Adam" about missing children, "Tapped in Silence" features Donald Sutherland's actor-son Keifer as the young boy.

"It's an interesting role for me," Mason said. "The kind I'm constantly looking for. But they're very hard to find."

She spends a lot of time looking. In one corner of her office is a large black bag filled with scripts that she totes back and forth from her home.

"I suppose I read about 10 a week," she said. "It keeps me busy every weekend."

But there are occasional breaks, she admits, and these are usually spent with the handsome young actor Lewis Smith, who will soon be seen in the second part of the miniseries "North and South."

Mostly, though, it's work that is occupying her thoughts.

"This is an important time for me," she said. "In the past, so much of the material I did was Neil's. And that's how people think of me, I'm sure. So I've got to make a concerted effort to find some special offbeat roles. It doesn't have to be a lead; I've done that. So I'm looking hard, not just sitting around waiting for the telephone to ring. It isn't easy. It requires a lot of patience. You've got to be. . . ."

Indefatigable?

"That's right."

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