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It’s Payback Time

Hilary de Vries is a regular contributor to Calendar

‘This is so pat-myself-on-the-back,” she is saying, “but it’s so amazing to have your work appreciated 20 years later.”

Once Cybill Shepherd lived on magazine covers: Vanity Fair during her “Moonlighting” days. People, first when her affair with Peter Bogdanovich made them a hot, semi-scandalous item in the ‘70s, and a decade later when she had twins with her second husband. It seemed the natural legacy of the strapping blond who’d walked out of Memphis, Tenn., into Hollywood via Glamour magazine. That was a time: eight covers in 12 months. She wasn’t even 20, just Model of the Year or some such thing, God’s answer to all that Twiggy mania, a real live American beauty.

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Now, Shepherd sits on a sofa in her sprawling, 8,000-square-foot house in Encino, peering through her glasses at a clipping from the New York Post, not a photo or story about her or even “Cybill,” her CBS series, just a blurb about the re-release of “Taxi Driver.”

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“Feb. 16,” she begins. “I guess I could read it to you,” she adds, her tone sheepish but somehow demanding assent.

“Let’s see, ‘Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant,’ ” she reads, rattling off her co-stars from so long ago--Albert Brooks, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel. “Oh, here it is. ‘And Cybill Shepherd is destined to win long-overdue praise as Travis’ idea of the perfect woman. Last time around, the actress was still considered Peter Bogdanovich’s severely limited girlfriend and it was trendy to knock her. No more. With her career resurrected and her popularity soaring, the subtle ways the ravishing young goddess flirts with De Niro, plays the tease with Brooks and chips away at her Ice Princess persona emerges as a complete revelation.’ ”

Shepherd drops the paper to her lap.

“Talk about overdue,” she says. “I was born in 1950, and ‘Taxi Driver’ was 1976--20 years ago, 20 years of me working really, really hard before I’m really mentioned. But everything about me is: How do you keep doing what you love in your life? How do you not give up because people say the most awful things about you in the most public manner?”

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What to make of Shepherd? Is she a goddess or a clown? Worthy of praise or a figure of pity? Talented or merely beautiful? Theories abound yet consensus eludes. At 46 and the star of her own sitcom, Shepherd can, at the very least, claim that rarest of show business rarities: “There are no second acts, right?” she cracks. “Well, I’m on my third. I’m like George Burns, and his didn’t begin until he was 80.”

It is a question of no little relevance, not in an industry ambivalent (at best) about women of a certain age. Many say Shepherd is what you see on her series, a gracefully aging beauty, an accomplished comic actress--a public rebuke to the common wisdom of Hollywood.

Certainly, she has the goodies to prove it: a hit series (despite a ratings dip when “Cybill” moved from Monday to Sunday nights on CBS this season), another Golden Globe in January (her fourth), a hefty $1.25-million book contract for her autobiography, even a new product to pitch--Mercedes-Benz. All of it duly noted:

“Cybill is a great role model,” says Alicia Witt, who plays Shepherd’s 17-year-old daughter. “She’s not a woman who’s afraid she isn’t 20 years old anymore.”

“Cybill seems sort of ageless,” muses Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment. “She’s remarkable in the way she’s reinvented herself.”

“People have underestimated Cybill,” says Bogdanovich, still one of the actress’ closest friends. “But then they’ve always underestimated her.”

Yet, like her TV counterpart, Cybill Sheridan--a struggling, twice-divorced actress and single mother--Shepherd also knows what it means to take a pie in the face. She had a fortuitous, many would say lucky, beginning. Shepherd, then Cheryl Tiegs’ contemporary in the modeling world, showed up in two hit movies, Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” in 1971 and “Taxi Driver” five years later. But there were also other films, “Daisy Miller” and “At Long Last Love” among them, that earned lacerating reviews. Shepherd was sent to the minors, regional theater, a time when an invitation to guest-star on “Fantasy Island” meant a step back up.

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“I was so far down on anybody’s list I didn’t even get to be with Herve [Villechaize],” she says, surprised at the laughter her candor brings. “No, you should laugh,” she says. “It was all embarrassing.”

Even her first comeback, her arrival on series television in 1985, playing long-suffering Maddie Hayes to Bruce Willis’ smirking David Addison in four seasons of ABC’s “Moonlighting,” didn’t really remedy things, not when that series became the network equivalent of a car wreck--well-publicized production problems and a three-way feud among the stars and creator Glenn Gordon Caron. Willis walked away unbloodied with a movie career, commanding $5 million a pop, while Shepherd was seriously battle-scarred.

“Cybill was blamed for that whole time,” Bogdanovich recalls. “It hurt her, personally and professionally.”

Now it’s payback time, of a sort. A chance to prove all those naysayers wrong.

“I’ve had to feel the heartbreak,” Shepherd says evenly. “And all those humiliations I’ve experienced go right in the show.” It’s why there even is a show called “Cybill.” “We had to create it, because they don’t know what to do with women on TV, not at this age,” she says. “They don’t know what to do with me.”

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Wednesday afternoon on Stage 3 at CBS’ lot in Studio City. The episode’s first scene, the “cold opening” in sitcom argot, won’t be shot for hours, the one in which Cybill is pulled into view on a morgue slab, deader than her own career back in the early ‘80s.

Right now, cast and crew are filming the second scene, in which Cybill Sheridan complains to Maryann Thorpe, her martini-sipping, wisecracking best friend--played with award-winning sang-froid by Christine Baranski. “I’m tired of playing mothers and housewives and oversized carrots,” Sheridan wails, dressed in sweats and slippers and hoisting a pair of dumbbells. “I want to be bad. I want Sharon Stone’s career--but with underwear.”

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Baranski has already delivered her withering “nice bunny slippers” line and barely looks up from the Vogue she idly flips through; the rest of the scene only requires her to moon after Ira, Cybill’s needy second husband, played with nebbishy elan by Alan Rosenberg. But the point is not lost on either of the two women: They may not have Sharon Stone’s career, but they’re far better off than most actresses their age.

“My theater friends all think of me heroically,” Baranski says. “After so many years of doing really hard work for no money, to now have this kind of success on TV, it’s, like, ‘Yes, it’s possible.’ ”

Or, as Shepherd put it last spring after she found herself in the Nielsen Top 10 for the first time in 10 years: “This is the chance of a lifetime for me.”

She would know. After “Moonlighting,” it was amazing she was even back on TV at all. Jeff Sagansky, Moonves’ predecessor at CBS, had tried to woo her back some years before, but Shepherd had declined. It wasn’t like she needed it, not with her TV movies, occasional feature work and her L’Oreal campaign. It wasn’t worth it, not when she had three young children at home and memories of her first series: the 16-hour days, the last-minute script changes, the disciplinary letter from executive producer Caron threatening her with legal action or series cancellation.

“It was the whole thing of sexism,” Shepherd says now. “You know, when a man stands up for himself, he’s admired; if a woman does, she’s a bitch. But I look back on it and wish I’d done more; I wish I’d refused to do [certain scenes]. I’d refuse now, but I had to watch Roseanne to learn to do that.”

Roseanne, in fact, played no small part in the genesis of “Cybill.” It was Jay Daniel, an executive producer on “Roseanne” who had worked with Shepherd on “Moonlighting,” who persuaded her to return to television. Daniel thought Shepherd had gotten a bum rap on “Moonlighting,” but he also saw sitcom gold in a series, like “Roseanne,” modeled closely on the actress’ own life.

“I thought ‘Roseanne’ was successful because it was so close to her [Roseanne’s] life,” Daniel says. “I thought Cybill could contribute in the same way. I’ve known her a long time, and I was always sort of fascinated by her life, how she balanced career and parenthood and her love life, and I thought that’s something I would want to watch on TV.”

If Shepherd was initially hesitant, the idea of a comedy series based on her life, as well as a chance to serve as executive producer--something she had lacked on “Moonlighting"--was ultimately irresistible. She agreed, as did ABC, NBC and CBS when Daniel began shopping the series he describes as “about a glamorous woman in a glamorous career, juggling kids and ex-husbands and getting to that point where she can’t depend on her beauty and her sexuality anymore.”

All of them agreed to an initial 13 episodes; Daniel and the production company, Carsey-Werner, the producers of “Roseanne,” went with CBS largely because of the promise of the coveted post-"Murphy Brown” time slot on Monday nights.

When “Cybill” premiered on Jan. 2, 1995, it quickly became one of the few successful midseason replacements, a desperately needed new hit for an otherwise moribund CBS.

“ ‘Cybill’ is a very significant show for CBS,” Moonves says. “It’s in the tradition of the women-centered comedies going all the way back to ‘Lucy,’ but it’s also a voice not heard in any other show.”

That voice includes a willingness to tackle such atypical sitcom subjects as menopause, older women’s sexual appetites and the possibility that God is a woman--nearly all of them plucked from Shepherd’s personal life and all of them handled with no small amount of self-deprecation.

“Any weird thing that’s happening in Cybill’s life, she wants to do an episode about,” says executive producer Howard Gould.

“Cybill is incredibly wacky and takes a lot of pokes at herself,” says co-star Rosenberg. “Also, she and Christine are becoming one of the great teams in comedy.”

“That’s one of the main things I wanted to see in this series,” Shepherd says, “that friendship between women that is so important in my real life.”

Credit series creator Chuck Lorre, who came up with the character of Maryann, and credit Baranski, the Tony-winning Broadway actress whose pairing with Shepherd has been an unexpected coup (Baranski won the Emmy last year, Shepherd the Golden Globe). The teaming has drawn comparisons to Lucy and Ethel as well as persistent rumors of an intense off-camera rivalry.

Although a recent set visit revealed no evidence of any such friction, neither actress seems willing to show her hand, as in some high-stakes poker game.

Both profess a good working partnership, an off-camera relationship limited by the demands of two high-powered careers, and both discount the rumors as sexism, “a way of diminishing both of us, of not giving us the credit we deserve,” says Shepherd, who is not above resorting to her executive producer role when it comes to her star employee.

“Christine had won every award in New York, but she had never had a popular success, and I was in the position to give it to her,” she adds. “I was the one who gave it to her, not the network, it was me believing in her, and that’s a great compliment to me really.”

It’s that kind of cool command, some would say arrogance, that has earned Shepherd her supporters and her detractors through the years, an All-American beauty queen outfitted in the kind of bold self-possession that saw the 21-year-old Shepherd cheekily tell interviewers after her affair with Bogdanovich had broken up his marriage to producer Polly Platt, “Oh, it’s sexier not being married.” The same self-possession that saw Shepherd once purr at a startled Jimmy Carter during a Hollywood fund-raiser, “Oooh,” nodding at his legume-shaped lapel pin, “I like your peanut.”

That same will showed most recently in her firing “Cybill” creator Lorre at the end of last season, a scenario others on the show describe as “difficult.”

“What Chuck wanted to do with the show is not what I wanted to do,” Shepherd says coolly. “It was time for him to move on.”

“Cybill is very funny and flirtatious but she can be outrageous, and she does cut people out of her life who she thinks are negative,” Bogdanovich says. “People are thrown by her; they don’t know how to handle all that she is, and her beauty only makes it worse. The envy factor has gotten to be very green at times.”

Sitting here amid the massive sprawl of her house, dressed casually if a bit incongruently in workout clothes and pearls--"I used to think they were old ladies’ jewels, but now I wear them with everything"--Shepherd cuts a very self-possessed if occasionally insecure figure. There are lines around her eyes--"I worry about getting older. Of course I do!” she says--but that’s not what makes her interesting. Rather it is the possibility that underneath all that beautifully maintained blond perfection, she remains wounded, even angry, after all the years of public slights and dismissals by the very industry that now seems to embrace her as emblematic of its own fair-mindedness.

“People treat me with more respect now, so it makes it easier,” she says, carefully choosing her words. “And if you have a producer’s credit, people treat you better. They have to listen to you. They don’t have to do what you say, but they have to listen.” There is also the matter of therapy, years of it after “Moonlighting” and the failure of her second marriage, to chiropractor David Oppenheim.

“I’m nicer now,” Shepherd says, adding that she prefers to discuss the subject in her upcoming autobiography. “It’s better if I put it in my own words rather than yours,” she says and then relents a bit. “I mean, I was always nice, but when you are blamed for something unjustly, it makes you very angry.”

Indeed, it’s one thing to see Shepherd mocking herself on her series, stumbling around in bunny slippers and pratfalls and frustrated ambition. It’s quite another to visit Shepherd at home, to see firsthand the extent of her life, the vast house, full of orchids and staff members and acres of white carpeting and a grand piano in the living room and a recording studio in the pool house. “I never had a piano growing up,” she reminds anyone who asks about this part of her life, her persistence in singing cabaret despite the kind of ridicule that dogged her as an actress.

“You can’t be great at something unless you are willing to keep falling on your face,” says Shepherd, ticking off her projects beyond “Cybill”: a TV movie, her book, her cabaret gigs in San Francisco and London and the CD she is recording with the new man in her life, her fiance, musician Robert Martin.

If living well is the best revenge, then Shepherd has been getting hers for some time now. Even her twins--8-year-old Ariel and Zack, from her marriage to Oppenheim (she has another daughter, 16-year-old Clementine, by her first husband, Memphis auto parts dealer David Ford)--dance into the room, more like two sprites in blue sweats than mere mortals, fluttering about Shepherd as she plies them with offers to bake brownies.

Reconcile that picture with the anger, or maybe just the irony, that Shepherd says she still feels.

“I think about the years when I watched people watch me sing and watch me act and I knew they weren’t open to it, that they weren’t hearing me,” she says, shaking her head. “Now, finally, it’s changing, now when I’m 46.”

Dusk is beginning to settle when Shepherd’s assistant comes in.

“Can you make copies of this?” she asks, holding out the New York Post. “Be careful,” she adds, as if it were those few words of type and not the splendor around her, the sheer weight of her own life, that contained her future and her past. “Be careful,” Shepherd calls out in the fading light. “I would hate to lose that.”

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“Cybill” airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on KCBS Channel 2.


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