Cause Celeb : Morgan Fairchild Wants You to Take Her Seriously

Margy Rochlin is a Los Angeles writer.

ONE OF THE first times that Morgan Fairchild spoke at--rather than just attended--a political function, she wore a fur coat. To be exact, a white, full-length badger coat. This, to an abortion-rights march sponsored by the National Organization for Women. Along with Fairchild's blond coxcomb of hair and theatrical makeup, it made her look--as one feminist at the event put it less than charitably--"like a beauty queen."

So there she was, jet-lagged, having just flown in from Italy. It was pouring rain, and she had a sinus infection--the reason she wore the fur coat in the first place. Once the organizers got an eyeful of her, they treated her with the distant chill usually reserved for party crashers. Oh, some of the women came up and said "Hi" and "Thank you for coming," but Fairchild could see that look in their eyes. It was a forlornness that said, "We're glad that a celebrity showed, but why did it have to be you?"

Still, she marched. Along with a crowd of 30,000, Fairchild splashed and slid her way to the Rancho Park destination while her coat turned gutter-water brown. When they got to the rally, most of the guest speakers didn't feel like getting any wetter. But Fairchild figured that the crowd--now ankle-deep in mud--deserved to "hear something. " So she gave her speech, which focused on abortion as a "basic inalienable right: the right to decide what to do with your own body." By all accounts, her address was moving, ironic and well-informed; when she finished, the once-skeptical audience reacted. Suddenly, Fairchild recalls, "all these women were coming over and hugging me, saying: 'I didn't know you could talk like that. Would you talk to our group?' "

She saw that moment as "a turning point in the way that some people in the political arena viewed me. . . . Because I realized that they had responded to me, that I had touched people.

"Before I got involved, I never thought anyone would give a damn about what I thought. I'm a television actor--who would care? Then I found out that I could help focus attention to an issue in a positive way. That was something I was blind to before."

AT 38, Morgan Fairchild knows that on first sight some people will think she is a bimbo. "When you're blond and drop-dead beautiful like Morgan," theorizes Fairchild's friend, actress and political activist Shelley Duvall, "people sometimes think you don't have any brains, which is just not the case (with Fairchild)."

And it can be disconcerting to hear a pop-culture icon talking about AIDS, toxic waste, deforestation and overpopulation. Both the public and Hollywood casting agents see Morgan Fairchild, who started on daytime TV in "Search for Tomorrow" and moved on to "Flamingo Road," "Paper Dolls" and "Falcon Crest," as a staple of the evening soap. Her charm-school haughtiness has elevated prime-time sexiness to a dizzyingly pristine level. The concept of Morgan Fairchild became such a stereotype that just by appearing in the film "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" she was spoofing herself. Only a year and a half ago her name was the butt of Jon Lovitz's most popular routine on "Saturday Night Live": As pathological liar Tommy Flanagan, Lovitz played off her antiseptic sex-symbol image by boasting about "My wife, uh . . . Morgan Fairchild. "

But in the past year, especially, Morgan Fairchild has found success in the political community, and some activists are suggesting, in all seriousness, that she should run for office. She has a substantive grasp of the issues and an impressive talent for making extemporaneous speeches--as well as a self-deprecating wit. Recently, for instance, she testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in favor of the California Desert Protection Act. After standing before the Washington press corps, "who were waiting for me to fall on my face," Fairchild was asked about the almost bewilderingly enthusiastic reception that followed her speech. "Honey, with my reputation," she responded, "people are surprised that I can walk and chew gum at the same time." For publicity-hungry politicians, she's clearly a valuable, if unlikely, asset.

And Fairchild has become so fluent in the acronyms of issue-speak that one needs a glossary to decipher her conversations. Her new profile has given her a status heretofore reserved for experts. She's discussed the AIDS crisis with Ted Koppel on "Nightline," breakfasted with Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, addressed the House Budget Committee Task Force on AIDS for San Francisco-Marin County Rep. Barbara Boxer, and spoken at the opening of the first federally financed AIDS-only wing at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in New York. She sat in coveted front-row seats during the Iran-Contra hearings but detested the media's snap assumption that she was studying Fawn Hall as research for a future role. "This is news?" she grouses. "Didn't it occur to anybody that I went there as a concerned citizen?" Her political involvement is motivated by "my real belief in some of these issues and a chance to do some thing that I feel is actually worthwhile," Fairchild whispers one afternoon while a speaker drones on at an AIDS benefit luncheon. "I didn't get that feeling on 'Falcon Crest.' "

Still, some people might ask, justifiably, is she for real? It's not unheard of for actors to adopt social causes in order to cast themselves in a more serious light. "You think I'd work my little tushy off like this just for autographs and sunglasses?" she responds with a flash of steel in her voice. "C'mon. It's just not worth it."

"BEING AT one of these things," Fairchild is saying, "is an invitation for an endorsement. People who are running for something come up and glad-hand you so much you can't even talk to your friends." She's standing in the lobby of the Palm Springs Convention Center, which smells faintly of popcorn, an odor she says she finds "indicative of (the atmosphere of) this whole event, don't you think?" She's a delegate at the State Democratic Convention, appointed by U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, for whom she campaigned in his close 1986 race. Being selected to serve at the convention so impressed her that she gave up "a free trip to Paris to see the fall collections." However, this profoundly disorganized function has so little national importance that only one presidential candidate, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, will bother to stump here. Still, her role as celebrity-delegate would not seem so hollow were she given something to do. Evidently, Fairchild's only responsibilities consist of: (1) being there, and (2) emceeing the Gala Dinner that evening. An undeniably conspicuous presence, she moves through the crowd in an Escada designer suit the color of a freshly mowed putting green. And the Saturday afternoon immediately degenerates into a marathon session of Instamatic flashes and damp handshakes. It seems that every minor candidate dreams of persuading Fairchild to add a glitzy touch to his or her campaign in the boondocks. "It wouldn't be so bad," she moans, after listening politely to yet another rambling pitch, "if when they ask me to endorse them they'd at least tell me what public office they're running for. . . ."

As it happens, seeing her political friends will provide Fairchild one of the few moments of relief in her weekend. "I feel like such a fish out of water," she confesses to State Controller Gray Davis. "I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing." "That's OK, Morgan," he says soothingly. "No one else knows that." Danny Sheehan, the activist lawyer who co-founded the Christic Institute, brings Fairchild up to date on the civil suit he filed against Iran-Contra figures he believes were involved in a Nicaragua assassination attempt. Leo T. McCarthy, who's running for the U.S. Senate, maneuvers his way over to her through a crowded hotel-room cocktail party, waving his hand and calling, "Morgan, Morgan."

In fact, the only sour note from her political brethren comes from Assemblyman Tom Hayden. This is how he kicks off his speech at the Gala Dinner that evening: " Palm Springs? Morgan Fairchild? I knew we (the Democratic Party) were moving toward the middle of the road. But I didn't know we were moving toward the middle of the fairway. . . ." The misfired joke doesn't make sense, but it comes off as a dig. On the dais, Fairchild is shaken but manages a laugh.

Hayden and Fairchild are actually friends, but the incident brings up an ironic and intriguing comparison. Fairchild's public-affairs ambitions are similar to those of Jane Fonda in the early 1970s. Like Fonda when she entered the political arena, Fairchild is an easy target, yet people rush to have their picture taken with her. And much like Fonda's activities in the early '70s, Fairchild's politics can be sincere but unfocused.

The overwhelming consensus among California Democratic activists is that she'll tirelessly support her favored candidates and issues. Fairchild was a key supporter on Cranston's campaign trail, logging a personal record for Time Spent on a Greyhound Bus. But though she often espouses the viewpoints of the liberal left, she isn't a Democrat; she's a registered Independent. Much to the confusion of both parties, she has been known to pop up at the occasional Republican function. "I'm not a political animal, I'm a curious animal," she explains. And her conversations can jerk unexpectedly into another direction, just as credibility is in sight: She takes a discussion from the dank caverns of AIDS-related homophobia into astrology. "One of the hallmarks of the sign of Aquarius is the campaign for justice," she says solemnly. "Everybody is my brother. Justice is very important to me."

Fairchild strongly favors abolishing indiscriminate sex on television. But she's more pragmatic when it comes to her own career. "I've turned down some scripts that had characters that were promiscuous," she says, "but I want to be practical about this: Once they've got you under contract, there's not a hell of a lot you can do except say, 'Please don't do this.' "

It's an interesting contradiction, one political acquaintance points out, "that Morgan, to make her career go well, still plays the sex goddess for all it's worth--then, at the same time feels the need to put all this energy out and work extra hard to prove herself to be someone of intelligence and substance. I think she works at both, frankly, at the same time."

BEAUTY, FOR Morgan Fairchild, came from a disciplined reinvention of herself--a process well documented by People magazine.

She was born Patsy McClenney, the eldest daughter of Milton and Martha McClenney of Dallas, Tex. Her romance-novel name comes from the 1966 film "Morgan--A Suitable Case for Treatment," which stars David Warner as a sweetheart iconoclast who's misunderstood by most of the conventional-thinking world. The movie's theme seems to reflect Fairchild's own predicament. She describes herself as a child who was pudgy, bespectacled and "very, very, very shy. Incapacitated. We're talking 'Glass Menagerie' time." Her dreams were, at the least, idiosyncratic . Her childhood idol? "Louis Pasteur." Her future occupation? "Paleontologist." She considered herself a loner, "never good at being . . . close." Even today, she finds it difficult to telephone acquaintances: "I think to myself, 'Oh, they wouldn't want to talk to me, they're probably busy.' "

"If you would have asked me at the age of 10 what I thought would happen to Morgan, quite literally I would have to think and wonder if she would still be alive today," says her sister, actress Cathryn Hartt. "She was like an 80-year-old yogi. She was so sensitive, a leaf could crush this child's soul." A few moments later, Hartt adds, "She also had a will of iron, an inner guts you'd never expect."

At some point, Fairchild dieted off the excess weight, got contact lenses and discovered makeup. At 14, she made the finals in the Miss Teen-Age Dallas beauty contest. By her junior year in high school, she had landed a job as Faye Dunaway's double in "Bonnie and Clyde" and gone on a date with Warren Beatty ("and she was still a virgin when she came home from it," Hartt volunteers to those with inquiring minds). Fairchild worked nights in local theater productions. Suddenly, everything was so different. One night, while playing a gold-lame-bikinied courtesan in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," the 16-year-old found herself doing a boisterous bump-and-grind while looking "right down into the face of the president of the sophomore class." "I knew my name was mud," she says later, laughing. "They'd never believe I was a nice girl again." It didn't matter anyway: At 17, she married her boyfriend and dropped out of high school just short of her senior year. Her education was completed by correspondence and backstage at "Soul City," her new husband's Houston nightclub, where she recalls seeing, among other sobering scenes, violent fights between Ike and Tina Turner.

A few years later, after her marriage dissolved, she moved to New York. Her friends thought the city would "chew me up and spit me out," Fairchild says. "I was doing ('Search for Tomorrow'), but I couldn't get an agent. I would go out for commercials and (casting agents) kept saying (in a whiny singsong), 'You're too classic. Too porcelain. You don't look real.' But I'm one of those people you can tell no a million different ways, and I'll spend the rest of my life trying to figure out some way to get you to say yes."

Fairchild pauses. "People have always underestimated me," she says. "I have great stamina, great tenacity."

In 1981, the Moral Majority's Rev. Donald Wildmon sparked her interest in political activism. Wildmon singled out "Flamingo Road" as "the rottenest show on TV," prompting Fairchild's first People magazine cover story, "Is She Too Sexy for TV?" "I thought it was very amusing at the time, like being on Richard Nixon's hit list," says Fairchild. "But the (subtext) really bothered me. I'm about the straightest person I know in this town. I don't drink, smoke, do drugs. I'm basically a pretty old-fashioned girl, and here these people were denouncing the character I play, and though they weren't labeling me as such, they were denouncing me."

Fairchild was apolitical at the time ("I didn't even protest in the '60s"), but the Moral Majority's negative campaigns concerned her. Still, she was unsure of what she could do about it. "Ever try to talk to people on the set about stuff like this?" she says. "They thought I was cute."

Around that time, says Fairchild, who calls herself a "science nut," she began following the burgeoning and deadly course of a then-obscure disease in the medical journals. She didn't mention that on the set, either. But in 1985, while Rock Hudson was dying of AIDS, Fairchild suddenly emerged as one of the most loquacious actors on the subject. "There was one day," she says, "when I had ABC in the living room, CBS in the kitchen and NBC in the bedroom, all waiting to talk hard news about AIDS." She was surprised to find that people were willing to listen to her.

In 1984, the powerful Hollywood Women's Political Committee was forming, and Fairchild was invited to become a member. Then, a few months later, Cranston invited her to appear with him at a Fresno fund-raiser. Fairchild worried that "with the kind of shows I do, I'll hurt his image," so she devoured a 5-inch-high stack of Cranston background material. Contributors were drawn to her and the senator. "Her fame and attractiveness helped attract people coming to see her that didn't want to see me," Cranston says. The word about Morgan Fairchild spread quickly through the Democratic political community.

So when other politicians began asking her to endorse them, she took them seriously and consumed their pamphlets and information just as earnestly. Leo McCarthy claims that "I had to go through 2 1/2 years of grilling before I could get Morgan to work for me. It was the toughest exam I've taken since passing the bar."

"I've worked with many (actors)," says Patrick Lippert, director of NETWORK (Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden's celebrity political group), "who are just, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. I have the rap down. That's all I want to know.' They memorize key things, then defer to the experts." Lippert, who became acquainted with Fairchild when they stumped for Proposition 65 on the 2 1/2-day Clean Water Caravan, says that Fairchild is different. "She not only does her homework; I've seen her collar the experts and then talk to them for two hours. Political activists, ones that have been around for a long time, give her very high marks."

MORGAN FAIRCHILD'S white three-bedroom Mediterranean-style home exudes the heady fragrance of a dried-flower potpourri. The living room is decorated in the tiny floral prints of Laura Ashley. Even her personal knickknacks, which fill every available space, seem ultrafeminine. There is her enormous snapshot collection; cloth- and ceramic-framed photographs of Fairchild and her celebrity friends--Bob Hope, Robin Leach, Barry Manilow--are everywhere, as is her huge collection of stuffed bunny rabbits. All this coexists with piles of subscription copies of Science Digest and Vogue and such books as "West With the Night" by Beryl Markham, "My Story" by Marilyn Monroe and "The Secret Door to Success" by Florence Scovel Shinn.

Fairchild, who has just come from her three-day-a-week, two-hour workout at the gym, is wearing almost no makeup. With only a dab of mascara, she looks fragile. She is sitting in a high-back rattan chair in her dining room, drinking a can of Coca-Cola. Every few minutes or so, Fairchild pads into the kitchen and takes another phone call. And it's important to answer each one because something is afoot: Director Mike Nichols has asked her to fly to New York to test for "The Thorns," a sitcom he's developing. There was once a time, before "Flamingo Road," when Fairchild, who was regularly featured on "Mork and Mindy," remembers being considered a budding comedienne. "Then I did the (evening soaps)," she sighs, "and now I'm a plastic bitch."

Fairchild has always been the first one to pigeonhole her work as mere "entertainment." ("We're not talking Ibsen here," she once told a reporter who criticized the high fluff quotient of "Flamingo Road"; "I try to do the best I can with whatever tawdry show I'm given.") But in 1986, after a season on "Falcon Crest," she began to re-evaluate her situation. Fairchild was hired to play Jordan Roberts, a schizophrenic incest victim with a trampy alter ego named Monica. Even before she began to question some of her dual character's dubious story lines, she found that the "Falcon Crest" producers "really didn't seem to want to use me." She was working half a day a week, sitting on the set and "watching my life tick by." By season's end, she felt dispirited and, having recently broken up with her boyfriend of five years, a cameraman, she wanted nothing more than to get out of Hollywood. "This wasn't low-level depression," she says. "This was grand funk blues."

But coincidentally, the day Fairchild decided to leave on a train tour of Scotland with her sister, the opportunities began appearing. Cannon Films wanted her to play the queen in an Israel-based production of "Sleeping Beauty." They needed a commitment immediately. A producer wanted her to tour in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." He needed her to come by and sing. Fairchild re-routed her trip via Tel Aviv and signed on for both projects.

For the past year and a half, she's spent a lot of time "just trying to come to grips with what I really want to do with my life." When she took stock of her career it suddenly hit her that her political activities were what she felt best about. "The kind of projects I was doing . . . well, there just has to be something better." In simple terms, Fairchild--in agreement with her managers and agents--decided to pass on the Movie of the Week offers and the brief miniseries cameo parts. Instead, she participated in a four-hour special, "The National AIDS Awareness Test," and appeared on a Bob Hope variety program. She almost did a guest shot on "Newhart," but "they stalled around and stalled around. To do it would mean canceling out on a big AIDS fund-raiser, which would have not been the gracious thing to do." According to Fairchild's math, she's forfeited more than $1 million waiting for "quality" roles.

However, the feature films she did accept, "Campus Man" and "Deadly Illusion," were low-budget efforts. The roles diverged slightly, but only just, from the calculating, overdressed women that Fairchild has already proven herself so expert at playing. Even the Mike Nichols project, "The Thorns," required that she portray a philandering social climber, although from a humorous perspective.

Lately, she's been involved with so many political endeavors that her publicist says, "I can't keep track of what she's doing." Her company, Little Bird Productions, is busy developing several project possibilities. She starred in and helped promote a home video called "Safer Sex for the Heterosexual," a well-meaning but slapdash effort produced by a former exploitation-movie producer.

"Just about a month ago," says sister Cathryn, "Morgan and I were talking. She keeps getting all this great feedback from people in the business who are saying (about her political involvement), 'Oh, she's very intelligent. I think maybe she is a better actress than I thought she was.' " One of her converts was "SNL" regular Lovitz, whom she sought out and befriended. As a result, when Fairchild and Lovitz are spotted together in public now, observers say, "Hey! You weren't lying.

"You are married!"

But some say that for Fairchild to finesse a career turnaround such as Farrah Fawcett's, she will first have to soften her look--cotillion-decorous hair and dress in the outmoded fashion of "Dynasty" and "Dallas." "We'll see how serious Morgan is about changing her image when she does it," says a friend of Fairchild's. The actress attempted the no-makeup, hair-in-a-bun route early in her career and found the audition-room battles were waged no more effectively. When asked if she will change, Fairchild says stubbornly: "What should I do? Break my nose? I've been running around town for the last year without much makeup on, wearing my Reeboks and my big sweaters and stuff. You know, I get really tired of getting painted up all the time. Basically, I'm a bum."

But she has worked hard to improve her standing professionally and politically. Many months later, "The Thorns" will be remembered as a personal triumph; she didn't get the part, but Nichols did compliment her on her acting. And she may put in an encore performance on Capitol Hill, speaking on behalf of Cranston's desert-preservation bill. There's been talk of Fairchild's attending the National Democratic Convention as a delegate, but that will depend on whether she endorses one of the candidates beforehand; for the time being she's not saying whom she likes.

She's also been cast in a CBS-TV pilot called "Some Kinda Woman," of which she says, "it's like the fun part of (the 1986 black comedy) 'Something Wild,' without the black undertones," and "Street of Dreams," a CBS movie that she cheerfully summarizes as "an '80s 'Maltese Falcon.' "

These projects are more likely to get her the secret-square berth on "Hollywood Squares" than the serious regard a TV film such as, say, Fawcett's "The Burning Bed" would confer. But on this afternoon, Fairchild stands in front of her house and says, "At least I'm getting a chance." She offers a smile and thrusts a tiny, clenched fist toward the clouds. "Now, this is progress."

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