A New Stage in Her Career : O'Donnell's Made It in Movies, but Broadway Was Her Dream

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the Bristol Lounge of the stately Four Seasons hotel, the tone is set by buttery oak walls and ceilings, gathered drapes, swirling carpets. A stone's throw from Boston Common and a few blocks from the city's theater district, the bar-restaurant is the kind of place one reasonably might expect to see opera singer Jessye Norman reclining on a plush fireside sofa while a classic winter blizzard rages outside.

It isn't the sort of joint you'd imagine that Betty Rubble would pick for dinner. And yet, isn't that her high-pitched, Stone Age cartoon laugh, spilling forth from a corner table?

"Ahnnnn hnnn hnnn. Bamm-Bamm, put that down!"

Adorned in gray sweat pants, navy blue sweat shirt, black high-tops and zero makeup, Rosie O'Donnell has about as much respect for the sanctity of her posh surroundings as Dino had for Fred.

The stand-up comic-turned-actress is explaining how she won her role as Betty in the "Flintstones" movie, opening around Memorial Day. So without hesitation, apparently oblivious to the power-tie and Perrier crowd dining around her, laugh she does. Loudly.

That's O'Donnell.

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She is one of the fastest rising personalities in the entertainment business--movie offers by the fistful, a starring role in a revival of "Grease" headed for Broadway (May 11, after a stop in Orange County beginning today), best friend to Madonna--but she has none of the newcomer-with-an-attitude syndrome.

During this interview, at least, she is candid, nonchalant and altogether real--even stopping mid-sentence at one point to ask her interviewer if that is Jessye Norman across the room, then excusing herself to go meet the diva, like some wide-eyed kid running into Roger Clemens outside Fenway Park.

That accomplished, O'Donnell, 32, returns to chat about more immediate concerns. First: Why "Grease"? Why now?

Her movie career has been humming along since the success of her debut in "A League of Their Own" in 1992--last year, she did "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Another Stakeout"--so this might not seem the best moment to take a nine-month hiatus. But O'Donnell thinks her timing is just about perfect.

"I'm done with (the "Grease" tour and Broadway run) by the end of October, so I'll be back making movies by November," she says. "Besides that, if you do movie after movie, the public gets sick of you."

As to why "Grease" specifically: Well, because Tommy Tune cast her. The original musical, by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, debuted on Broadway in 1972; this revival is a Tune production, directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun.

"They were looking for a 'name' to be one of the lead roles, and when I said I had wanted to do Rizzo, they thought that would probably work," she said.

O'Donnell has wanted to do just about any role in just about any musical on Broadway since she was old enough to memorize every line and lyric to "Funny Girl" (a talent she retains, and--in Streisand-esque comic voice--uses periodically to punctuate interviews such as this one).

But she is under no delusions that she has Barbra Streisand's vocal chops. Or even Stockard Channing's, who played Rizzo in the movie version.

"I was never really a singer, except for maybe in the shower or something like that. But I always wanted to do it because to me there is nothing like the thrill of going to a Broadway show when the lights go down and you have that orchestra in front of you. I always get goose bumps. It's the reason I went into show business in the first place."

So far, she says, the reception has been warm and forgiving.

"The audiences have been great. Nobody is really expecting me to get up there and be Whitney Houston. They know who I am and what I do, and I think they do expect me to be funny, and hopefully I am funny. Then the rest . . . they think, 'You know, she is all right.' Even the critics have said, 'She's all right; she's not the best singer.' Which is fine. I can take that. It's the truth."

Actually, at least a few critics have equivocated a bit:

Kevin Kelly, Boston Globe: "She has the brazen delivery of Ethel Merman. She snaps one-liners like gum, she burps, she boogies. She has two songs . . . which she sings in an even tone but, often, with the wrong emphasis."

Pamela Sommers, Washington Post: "The part of Rizzo . . . is no stretch for the pasty-faced, tough-talking O'Donnell, but the less said about her off-key, blaring singing, the better."

In general, O'Donnell finds herself treated well by the entertainment media, remaining philosophic about the negatives.

"You don't get away unscathed," she says flatly. "They're going to print something. And I've been really lucky because the press has been really nice to me. And I'll stop wherever I am--even if I look like crap--I say, 'Go ahead and take the picture,' because they are trying to get the job done and it's part of the game, in my opinion."

The game for her began when she was 18 and left her home in Commack, N.Y., to hit the stand-up comedy circuit. Her mother died of cancer when Rosie was 10 and, even with a sister and three brothers around, there wasn't much levity on the home front as she remembers it ("very Irish Catholic sort of repressed family").

She had walked into a local club and delivered a killer routine lifted--verbatim--from an up-and-coming young comic named Jerry Seinfeld. After the other comics on the bill nearly had her dismembered for the infraction, she met with a far scarier realization: This comedy thing was going to require her to create her own jokes.

"I was like 'How am I going to write material? I'm not a writer.' I was so mad."

Still, she stuck with it. In 1984, she won several episodes of "Star Search" (though not the coveted grand prize), moved to Los Angeles and two years later found herself on the NBC series "Gimme a Break." Then came emcee duties on VH-1's "Stand-Up Spotlight."

Her show-biz stature increased when she was cast as best friend and teammate to Madonna's character in "A League of Their Own." The friendship ultimately extended into real life and, both confirm, it continues today.

Being a mega-star's pal has shown her something of the price of fame. "Coming to know (Madonna) and love her as a human being brought me to a different awareness of what that kind of media image does to someone," O'Donnell says. Superstardom is now far from something she aspires to, though she admires her friend's attempts to live somewhat normally in spite of it.

"She is recognized, but she does go places," O'Donnell insists. "I mean, we go the mall; we go to the movies."

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And what does Madonna have to say about her pal?

"My friendship with Rosie has nothing to do with image," the pop diva commented recently. "I cannot explain the mystery of what happens when you become best friends with someone. I can only say that we are tortured by the same things, we laugh at the same things, and I love her madly!"

Next up for O'Donnell is the release of "The Flintstones," a Steven Spielberg production that O'Donnell hopes has blockbuster written all over it. But even if it bombs at the box office, she's already realized a dream as a result of the project:

She is a Happy Meal figurine.

OK, it's actually Betty Rubble's likeness that is poised to become a prize in McDonald's fast-food version of the Cracker Jacks box. But O'Donnell, who long has been a collector of Happy Meal toys herself ("I have like hundreds"), is thrilled to be even this close to immortalization.

Following "The Flintstones," O'Donnell's screen image will take a dramatic turn. In the Garry Marshall-directed "Exit to Eden," based on the Anne Rice novel, she plays an undercover cop who goes to an adult-themed fantasy island to solve a drug-smuggling caper. The role, reportedly turned down by Sharon Stone, includes a semi-nude scene.

"I'm nearly nude," O'Donnell reports. "Nude enough to scare people.

* "Grease," Today-April 3 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets $19-$45. (714) 556-2787.

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