The Peters Principle : Bernadette Peters Keeps Busy By Moving From TV to Film to Nightclubs

Times Staff Writer

If Bernadette Peters ever grows weary of wandering around the entertainment industry like a silver-voiced figurine dancing across a Monopoly board, she always has a home on television.

Her latest movie, "The Last Best Year of My Life" on ABC Sunday, affirms that.

Peters plays a duty-bound career woman whose dull, lonely life turns truly tragic when she's told that she has an incurable cancer and will die by the end of the year. Mary Tyler Moore enters the picture as a psychotherapist who wants to care but is frightened to grow attached to a dying patient.

"This is really Bernadette's film," Moore said. "I've always admired her as an actress. She's a singer of songs who can also act them better than anyone I have ever seen. I always wanted to know the soul behind the voice. Oh, that soul would take a poet to describe."

"I'm lucky," Peters said by telephone from her New York apartment, "because I do work in different areas of show business. So if I don't like what's coming my way in film or on Broadway, which I haven't lately, then I'll go perform my nightclub act, which I love, or I'll take on a television project."

Peters caught critics' attention for her TV work in 1988 when she starred in ABC's "David," as the mother of David Rothenberg, the 6-year-old boy whose father purposely set fire to his motel room while they were vacationing at Disneyland. "David" was directed by John Erman ("An Early Frost") who suggested Peters for "Last Best Year," which he also directed.

Earlier this year for NBC, Peters doubled uncannily for Tammy Faye Bakker in "Fall From Grace."

"You frequently see Bernadette doing singing and comedy--that's the way you think of her first. But believe me, she has this full, full dramatic range. It's a glorious thing to see," said "Last Best Year" writer David Rintels, who also produced the movie with his wife Victoria Riskin.

"I'm much more comfortable with dramatic roles now," Peters said. "I just know more about myself, and I know more about, um, life. And the characters we meet in life. I just think I've grown more as an actress, that is what it comes down to."

Peters, whose porcelain face and crystal singing voice have generally won her praise despite numerous forgettable projects, conducts her career like "Let's Make a Deal," offering a little something for everybody in her studio audience.

Behind Door No. 1, there's Peters the Broadway singer and actress, who received a Tony Award in 1986 for Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Song and Dance" and starred in Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Into the Woods." She also has a Las Vegas act that she takes on the road.

Behind Door No. 2, there's Peters the film actress, whose lighthearted film escapades have mainly resulted in critical zonks, including "Pink Cadillac" (1989) with Clint Eastwood and "The Jerk" (1979) with former boyfriend Steve Martin.

And behind Door No. 3, there's Peters the serious TV actress.

"Some people may think Mary Tyler Moore and Bernadette Peters . . . this movie is going to be a laugh a minute," said Riskin, a psychotherapist upon whose experiences the story is based. (Riskin's father, Robert, was a screenwriter whose credits included "Meet John Doe" and "It Happened One Night," and her mother is actress Fay Wray.)

"But they're brilliant dramatic actresses," Riskin continued. "From the very beginning there was a real supportive exchange between them. You always worry when two very strong actresses come on the set how it's going to go, but it went very well."

In time, director Erman was referring to Moore and Peters as the Diva and the Divette.

"Because we had a rehearsal period where we talked about ourselves and the characters, we got to know each other and trust each other," Peters said of Moore. "She came from a Catholic background, as I did. She would tell me, 'You know, great things happen after 40, like the hair doesn't grow as much on your legs.' We'd go to the ladies room and discuss things like that."

Like Moore, Peters got her start at an early age. Born Bernadette Lazzara in Ozone Park, Queens, N.Y. (she later changed her name to Peters to avoid being typecast in ethnic roles), the young actress was just 4 when she debuted on the TV show "Juvenile Jury." She was bred to be a star by her mother, a stage-struck housewife who whisked her daughter off to tap-dancing and singing lessons at age 3.

Peters floated around for years on stage in mediocre plays set to music "to forget to." She did some TV--including the brief Norman Lear series "All's Fair" on CBS in 1976--and recorded pop record albums.

For now at least, Peters has no plans to narrow her opportunities. "I enjoy what surprises me the most," she said. "That's why I love to get up on stage in my nightclub act and say to myself, 'Let's see what happens tonight.' Surprises are fresh for me. The more diversified I am, the more aspects of myself I find."

"The Last Best Year of My Life" airs Sunday on ABC at 9 p.m.

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