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Profile : The Rise of Sela Ward--and Fall of Jessica Savitch

September 03, 1995|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sela Ward is having a tough day.

She arrives 30 minutes late at the Four Seasons hotel restaurant to discuss her Lifetime movie "Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story," airing Monday. Apologizing profusely for the delay, Ward explains that her 14-month-old son Austin was so upset when he saw her leaving that she stayed until he stopped crying.

Motherhood has totally altered the life of the former art and advertising student and model who's now known for being the rebellious sibling on NBC's "Sisters." (Ward has been married for three years to businessman Howard Sherman). Though enthusiastic about her sixth season on the series, for which she won an Emmy playing the outrageous Teddy, Ward's not renewing her contract after this year. In fact, she's only committed to 22 out of 28 episodes this season.

"I have to see my kid," Ward explains. "My life has changed drastically. I wasn't married when I started the show. Now I'm married and I have a baby."

If she hadn't cut back on her schedule this season, Ward confesses, "I would probably have a nervous breakdown. It's much better this year. It gives me more flexibility. It's really difficult when you have a little human being. You don't get this time back. It's such an important time."

Leaving "Sisters" also will allow her to do more features and TV movies. Two years ago, Ward starred as Harrison Ford's murdered wife in "The Fugitive." During her hiatus this past spring, Ward was offered "a couple of films parts, but you know for women it is the token love interest for some guy. Nothing to sink your teeth into."

That wasn't the case with "Almost Golden," which chronicles the story of the groundbreaking NBC News anchorwoman Jessica Savitch, who, plagued with insecurity and driven by incredible ambition, became a tragic victim of the network news' "boys' club." Savitch's personal life was equally unsettling: Her two marriages were disasters; her second spouse committed suicide five months after they married in 1981.

(Lifetime also will air the new documentary "Intimate Portrait: Jessica Savitch" following the movie Monday.)

A substance abuser, Savitch created a scandal in early October, 1983, when she appeared on-camera glassy-eyed and slurring her speech while anchoring a live prime-time NBC News Digest. Savitch, her male companion Martin Fischbein, and her Siberian husky died in October, 1983, when their car ran off a rain-slicked road and overturned into the Delaware Canal in New Hope, Pa. There was no evidence of drugs or alcohol. She was 35.

Executive producer Bernard Sofronski doesn't think Savitch's story is necessarily a tragic one. "I just thought of it as a positive story for women in this country," he says. "She was a forerunner and set the stage for every city in the United States today in terms of what she did in a world where no one wanted her. It was a boys' club world. It's a very positive legacy for women everywhere."

Sofronski was thrilled when Ward agreed to do the film. "When Sela's name was mentioned," he recalls, "I was very excited. She's a very hot actress in Los Angeles. I know the feature world is very much after her."

Describing Ward's performance as "incredible," Sofronski adds, "she just shines on camera. She did bring her to life with great subtlety and choices. It was also the first time for Sela to do a film where she was literally in every scene in the movie. I said, 'Sela, after this you can do anything ,' which is true. She can do anything ."

Ward did her homework by watching footage of Savitch, who was named one of the top news anchors in the country in a nationwide poll in 1982, and reading Gwenda Blair's book "Almost Golden," on which the film is based.

"She was good in the reporting, on camera she was really good," Ward says, diving into her broiled salmon. "She was damn good. She was quick-witted and quick on her feet."

Though Savitch (and Barbara Walters) helped pave the way for female news anchors today, Ward isn't sure life would have been much easier today for her. "At that time, remember, it was laughable, the idea of a [female news anchor]. Today, in that respect it would have been an easier acceptance. But look at Connie Chung for example. Maybe it was Dan Rather who is the ratings problem. But it was immediately decided it was her."

Savitch, Ward suggests, was "really used for ratings. They threw her into a situation covering the Senate and you had hard-core people there who had been following the beat for years and knew all the ins and outs. [She] didn't know all the players. The tragedy to me is that they would send her out to give lectures everywhere about inane things, fluff sort of things to keep her in the public eye. They literally threw her to the wolves."

A similar thing nearly happened to Ward when she was at the University of Alabama in the mid-'70s. "ABC Sports was covering college football and they were looking for a college-age woman to do sideline commentary," recalls Ward, who was a cheerleader. "I ended up auditioning for this part extensively. I didn't ultimately get it, thank God."

But she did get an insight into the world of TV broadcasting. "It's so heartless," Ward says. "I literally would have been eaten for breakfast."

"Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story" airs Monday at 8 p.m. on Lifetime; "Intimate Portrait: Jessica Savitch" follows at 10 p.m.; "Sisters" airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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