Swoosie Kurtz is one of New York theater's brightest lights. She won two Tony Awards in the last decade, for Lanford Wilson's "Fifth of July" and John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves." She was even Guare's first choice to star in his current Broadway smash "Six Degrees of Separation."
But Kurtz is not exactly a household name with movie and TV audiences, despite having starred in the Tony Randall comedy series on NBC, "Love, Sidney" and in such films as "True Stories," "Dangerous Liaisons" and "A Shock to the System."
Even winning an Emmy last year for a guest appearance on NBC's "Carol & Co." didn't bolster her TVQ (popularity).
"Let me tell you what happened at the Emmy party," Kurtz said, breaking into a bemused grin. "This guy comes up to me with the Emmy program and said, 'Will you sign this please?' I said, 'Sure.'
"While I am signing it he says, 'You're so wonderful in "Twin Peaks." ' I said, 'You're thinking of someone else.' And he said, 'Really, who are you? "'
Obviously, Kurtz said, the fan had mistaken her for Peggy Lipton.
"Sisters," a limited NBC series kicking off a six-week run Saturday, could be Kurtz's ticket to TV stardom. In the one-hour drama, Kurtz stars as the WASPy wife of a wealthy plastic surgeon (David Dukes) who is a full-time shopper and mother to a preteen daughter. Patricia Kalember, Julianne Phillips and Sela Ward play Kurtz's younger sisters.
"Television is where it's at," the easygoing actress said over lunch recently at Warner Bros. during a break in filming. "As little as three years ago, film directors were looking down their noses at TV people. Now film careers come out of TV."
Kurtz also finds television is much more immediate than the big screen. "You have to wait so long for a movie to get a green light; you can sit around and become ancient until they decide to do something," she said. "So you are no longer playing the daughter, you are playing the mother. "
The "Stanley & Iris" debacle was the straw that broke Kurtz's back. She played Jane Fonda's abused sister in the 1990 box-office bomb, but most of her once-meaty role ended up on the cutting room floor and her character disappeared without a trace within the first half hour.
"It was like 'Unsolved Mysteries,' " Kurtz cackled. "Did we all fall off the edge of the porch? I had fantasies of it coming out at Oscar time. It was one of those things that if it's a great movie everybody gets nominated."
"Sisters" hasn't actually been a picnic either. Kurtz said she was having a hard time adjusting to the pace of doing a one-hour series.
"A feature they shoot two pages a day," she said. "We shoot 10 pages a day. Sometimes you feel like any good work you happen to do is by sheer happy accident. On one day I was here for 15 hours. In the morning we did a scene which was not important and it took three hours! There were too many (camera) setups. We ended up doing a really crucial scene later in the day in just 20 minutes. It was wrong."
She was equally unnerved that she had to sign a "ridiculous contract" to do the series. While shooting the pilot to "Sisters" more than a year ago, Guare offered her the lead in "Six Degrees." NBC made her turn it down because "Sisters" was set to go into production last summer.
But when filming was delayed until late fall, Kurtz finally got to do "Six Degrees" for three months when lead Stockard Channing left to do a movie.
"Still," Kurtz said, "I didn't open in it. Some of these deals are great for people who like to sit around and get paid to do nothing. They just pay you for the pilot and that's it. It seems like a lot of money at the time, but like, five months later, when you break it down it's unbelievable."
Kurtz, the only child of an author and an Air Force colonel, was named after the "Swoose" (half-swan, half-goose), the plane her father piloted during World War II and which is now on display in the Smithsonian. Because of her father's career, Kurtz grew up in eight different states and attended 17 schools.
"We lived in Tampa, Fla.; Nebraska; Maryland; San Bernadino--all the real glamour spots," she said. A high school drama teacher inspired her to start acting. "It was pretty clear to me that is what I wanted to do and I could do it well. Until then I couldn't do anything I could connect with."
Kurtz majored in drama at USC and studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. She feels she made a mistake going to England.
"I would have been much better off going to Yale," she said. "I was a real Anglophile and I wanted to study and get all the diction and stuff. I came back with a complete English accent. I had a wonderful time there, but then you come back and you don't know anybody and nobody knows you. You are starting off from ground zero."
"Sisters" premieres Saturday at 10 p.m. on NBC