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Call Her Cyclone Helen

Helen Hunt's ability to be real on 'Mad About You' earns her accolades. So what will a 300-mph 'Twister' do for her career?

May 05, 1996|Bruce Newman | Bruce Newman is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

All around Helen Hunt, the winds of change are swirling through the set of "Mad About You"--NBC's state-of-the-heart Sunday night sitcom--but as the unmistakable howl of the blowup that is coming in the next scene gathers in the distance, Hunt remains perfectly still, seated on the show's living room sofa, peering out from the calm in the gray-green eye of the storm.

The room is a blur of set dressers and technicians, eddying rapidly around her, while on the perimeter of the stage a cluster of Teamsters in black Harley-Davidson T-shirts looms like a dark funnel cloud. It is the first time that Hunt has been alone all evening, and for the next five minutes she does not appear to move a muscle, while inside she is completely reconstituting herself for the show's dramatic final scene.

"The kind of acting that interests me most is when your center of gravity changes," Hunt had said earlier. "It's that subtle. The differences are emotional and energetic, rather than linear or tangible."

Hunt's center of gravity will undoubtedly get another jolt on Friday with the release of "Twister," the summer's first big action movie and her first chance at the brass ring of movie stardom. If what is standing outside the box offices next weekend is long and linear and what is sitting in the seats are tangible assets, the effect on Hunt and her 24-year acting career will be sudden and profitable.

At this moment, however, Hunt is rearranging her molecules, or whatever it is she does, to prepare for the final scene of a "Mad About You" that is something of a psychic twister. She and co-star Paul Reiser have at times aggressively pushed the boundaries of what a sitcom marriage can be during the show's four seasons.

"Both Paul and I have wanted for years to really give them a scary challenge to try to overcome, I think because both of us know that's how life is," Hunt says of TV's most lovable married couple, Paul and Jamie Buchman. "Part of what's scary about relationships is how out of control they make you. Every time you think you've got a handle on them, it's like life comes along and goes, 'Oh, really? Well, f--- you.' We try to honor that."

Hunt's most interesting relationship, and possibly the scariest, may well be with herself, for she is a relentless striver who frets endlessly over each scene until--like life--it's not quite perfect.

"If we have an episode in which the couple feels out of balance, I want to be brave enough to have their jokes miss a little bit," she says, "to have them misunderstand each other and end the scene not on a big laugh but on a slightly minor chord. We sacrifice a lot of big, funny lines because we feel like they're cheating."

From the moment she agreed to do "Mad About You," Hunt has wanted to make sure the joke was not always on her.

"Her concern was that she was going to be Gabe Kaplan's wife, that it was going to be a show about the comedian and the girl who stands there while he says funny things," Reiser recalls. "She said very emphatically, 'If I'm going to do this for a long time, you've got to know that I'm not quiet.' "

As a child actress, Hunt had played the daughter of Murray Slaughter on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." But neither Moore nor the archetype conceived by original "Mad About You" executive producer Danny Jacobson--Audrey Meadows of "The Honeymooners"--seemed a suitable role model to Hunt.

"It never occurred to me to aspire to be any of these women on TV, because I didn't think I was going to do a TV series," Hunt says. "I wanted to be Ingrid Bergman."

She seems far more likely to become Barbara Stanwyck--the Stanwyck of "Meet John Doe," "The Lady Eve" and "Ball of Fire"--particularly if "Twister" can turn her into a big movie star. Hunt will be 33 next month, the same age Stanwyck was when she made those edgy masterpieces. By then she will know which way the twister that determines an actor's choices has turned.

"Moments like this are very vulnerable-making because you don't know what it's going to do," she says. "People say, 'Your life is going to change.' That's the one I've heard. What does that mean?"

Meanwhile, there is the little matter of the network sweeps period, which kicked off last week, and which Hunt, unlike some actresses, does not view as a national plebiscite on her own popularity.

"She doesn't worry about Jamie Buchman being likable," says John Pankow, who plays Reiser's cousin Ira on the show. "Helen doesn't know how to play false notes, and because of that, her performance is darker, it's got more of an edge, and there's a bigger payoff in the end."

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