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There is life after Fresno

Times Staff Writer

Four years ago, you could have called Anne Heche crazy. Why not? That’s what the tabloids took to calling her, and it’s what she called herself: “Call Me Crazy” is the title of the 2001 memoir she wrote, she said, to purge herself of her childhood demons and split personality, the one that led her to abandon her car in Fresno, wearing shorts and a bra, the day after breaking up with Ellen DeGeneres. Then she wandered into a stranger’s house, where she showered, put on Mickey Mouse slippers, and tried to persuade the children there to board a spaceship to heaven with her.

In the aftermath of her Fresno Moment, Heche’s once-promising career seemed to be reduced to a late-night TV punch line. So you’d be forgiven for doing a double-take at the sight of a sane-looking Heche in Armani, holding her husband’s hand and looking calm and vibrant at this year’s Emmys, nominated for her role in the Lifetime movie “Gracie’s Choice.” In the weeks ahead she’ll be even more visible: she’ll be appearing Monday nights on the WB, where she debuted last week as Amanda Hayes on “Everwood,” and next Sunday she’ll star in the CBS movie “The Dead Will Tell.” On the big screen, Heche will appear in “Birth” with Nicole Kidman in November.

Could so much entertainment-industry money really have been gambled on an actress everyone, it seemed, agreed was out to lunch -- who inspired the Los Angeles play “Call Us Crazy: The Anne Heche Monologues”? Margot Kidder had her “Big Flip-Out,” wandering the streets of L.A. for five years, and survived; Patty Duke went public with her manic depression in 1982 and thrived. But they had already established big careers. Will Tinseltown be as compassionate with Heche as it was with them or with some of its most famous alcoholics, drug addicts and sexaholics?

“For better or for worse, people always saw that I chose life,” the 35-year-old Heche said recently, relaxing with a vanilla latte at a coffeehouse near her penthouse apartment on Beverly Boulevard. “I have always chosen a path that was about finding the love of my life and finding a family. And now my focus can be on my work. It’s a benefit that I did all those things because I have them to draw on as an actress. If you’re looking for someone with a well to explore emotionally on the screen, I can do it. My challenge now is: Can I create and can I be as creative from a place of love? It’s funny, you get really happy in your life and you have nothing to talk about.”

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Until “Call Me Crazy” was published and she spilled her guts to Barbara Walters, no one knew the back story that explained her strange behavior that day: the sexual abuse she said she suffered as a young girl, which led her to block most of her childhood memories and fill them in with delusions of flying and being the reincarnation of God herself.

Now that time and distance has made all of that a bit hazy, Heche said, she finally can chase the career others always wished for her, but that she placed on the back burner in her desperate quest for love. Her “pre-Fresno” phase lasted 31 years. At 35, and her fourth year of “post-Fresno” serenity, Heche said she is poised to take on Hollywood again, big screen and small.

“It’s taken me four years to create my family and feel solid,” she said. “I never had a solid family. I didn’t want anyone worrying about family love. Even though I’ve had an incredible, incredible career, and that is my passion, I gave my life to finding the love of my life. I risked everything for that.”

Even her marriage, though, began as fodder for the tabloids. After the Fresno incident, Heche spent a week in a psychiatric hospital, then soon began dating cameraman Coleman Laffoon, whom she had hired in 2000 to film a documentary about DeGeneres. She married him a year later. In March 2002, she gave birth to their son, Homer.

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“I believe Americans love comeback stories and root for people who have the wherewithal, strength and conviction to make themselves better,” said Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television, which produces “Everwood.” “That’s a corny way of saying it, but I really do believe that Americans root for the underdog. As long as people are honest about their mistakes and show a willingness to improve, people are remarkably forgiving and attracted to that. From our perspective, what has been consistent and constant in her life is her extraordinary talent and appeal.”

New face in town

On Monday, Heche began a 10-episode arc on the WB’s “Everwood” playing Amanda Hayes, the town’s “patron saint,” a title Amanda earned for sticking by her paralyzed husband for five years. Amanda and one of Everwood’s doctors, Andy Brown (Treat Williams), get off to a rocky start when their children are caught kissing in a closet, but soon the sparks fly. “Anne’s extraordinarily creative,” said Williams in a telephone interview from Park City, Utah. “She jumped right in and has been so grateful to be here. She has a great instinct for improvisation. My greatest concern in working with someone new is whether I’m going to enjoy spending 14 hours a day with this person. I’ve never been about having preconceptions about people because I’ve almost always been wrong.”

Heche figures she will always have Fresno, and people will always have questions, but she does not view that as entirely negative. Although she claims she wrote the autobiography primarily to heal from sexual abuse she said she suffered at the hands of her father while her mother ignored it, Heche said she also chose to go public hoping to help others.

“I’ve never been a person to shy away from topics,” she said. “It’s who I am. I hope the fact that I talk about these things in my life might help other people find peace in their own conflicts. People are curious about it, but I think it will become less and less, and hopefully I’ll have more and more topics to add on so that there won’t always be questions about the last seven years of my life. But to the extent that all of that served as the building blocks of me being a different person, I won’t ever shy away from it.”

In reality, Heche never stopped working, but she did stay under the radar. She guest-starred on “Ally McBeal” in 2001 and had supporting roles in “John Q” and the never-released “Prozac Nation.” But her attention focused mostly on the new loves of her life. Her son was born six months after “Call Me Crazy” was on the bookshelves.

“I saw in Coley a way of life that I really liked,” Heche said of her husband. “He is so calm, and he so enjoys life. I was born into drama, and I survived a lot on that drama. The more I healed, the more I understood I didn’t need it anymore.”

It wasn’t long before Heche decided it was time to make a bigger effort to resurrect her career. Laffoon made it easy for her by giving up his job to stay home with Homer. “He likes the title ‘stay-at-home dad,’ so that’s what I call him,” Heche gushed.

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“Homer’s a very mellow, loving boy. He’s very relaxed. He’s very much like his father. He spends a lot of time with his dad, and his dad is a very beautiful, lovely man -- I blame his wonderful parents -- and it reflects on our son very much.”

Heche wanted a stable schedule, so she made the network rounds, building relationships and inquiring about television gigs. No TV offers materialized, but in 2002 Heche got the lead in the Pulitzer-winning Broadway play “Proof” and received so much acclaim that the show’s run was extended for months. Her last theater gig had been “The Music Man” in New Jersey when she was 12.

Then Lifetime gave Heche a role that boosted her career with an Emmy nomination but did even more for her personally. In “Gracie’s Choice,” Heche played a drug-addicted, alcoholic abusive mother whose 16-year-old daughter petitions for custody of her siblings. The movie, based on a true story, gave Heche the opportunity to experience abuse from her mother’s perspective.

“Gracie’s mom was fun and great-looking and none of the things we associate with people who are verbally and emotionally abusive,” Heche said. “I was thrilled that Lifetime wanted to show the truthfulness of that reality. I always wondered if my mother was conscious -- if you can treat children that way and still love them. What I learned in doing the movie is that you cannot behave the way the woman in this movie did, or my mother did, and still love. It was a relief to me to finally come to terms with this question.”

Staying busy

This year, Heche returned to Broadway opposite Alec Baldwin in “Twentieth Century,” a 1932 comedy set aboard a luxury train en route from Chicago to New York. To revive his failing career, a Broadway producer (Baldwin) hops on the train to persuade a famous movie actress (Heche) to sign a contract with him. Heche was nominated for a Tony.

“She’s fearless as an actress, and she’s also a funny physical actress, along the lines of Lucille Ball,” director Walter Bobbie said. “Listen, I’m not a fool when it comes to choosing the people I work with. I’m not going to put myself in harm’s way. When I met Anne, I spent the afternoon with her talking and reading and acting together. I never for a moment thought she was going to talk to someone from another planet or anything like that. There was no doubt that whatever she went through, she wasn’t going through it anymore.”

When “Twentieth Century” closed, Heche moved her family to New Orleans, where she filmed “The Dead Will Tell” for CBS. Based on the readings of spiritual medium James Van Praagh (“Living With the Dead” and “Talking to Heaven”), the supernatural thriller centers on a woman whose world turns upside down when her fiance buys her an antique engagement ring that belonged to a woman whose murder was unsolved.

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“There’s always going to be things lingering from Anne’s past because unfortunately it was such a public thing, but her acting stands on its own,” said Van Praagh, one of the movie’s executive producers. “Everyone has to go through their stuff, and she has many positive attributes. It seems like that was her life at that time and place, but now she is happy and is letting herself be happy. That’s about self-acceptance and loving yourself. I think that’s where she is now.”

A welcome addition

Heche is thankful to be back at home in Los Angeles, where her son has started school and she can fly 90 minutes to her “Everwood” job in Utah every 10 days. “We have wanted Anne on this show for a really long time,” executive producer Rina Mimoun said. “Anne’s eyes are so expressive. She can make you cry and land a joke, which is so awesome. On this show, we are always encouraging family communication, and since her family is so important to her, this role was perfect for her.”

The network agreed.

“For us to be able to hire an actress of that caliber, of that movie-star ilk, to play opposite Treat Williams in one of the classiest shows on television, I was ecstatic,” said David Janollari, the WB’s president of entertainment. “She’s a stunning addition to the show. Whatever happened in the past happened in the past. I honestly don’t even remember when it was.”

On this afternoon Heche had just returned from taping her first episode as the “patron saint of Everwood,” a label that gives her a kick because it would never be attached to her in real life.

“ ‘Everwood’ is a beautiful family show,” she said. “They tackle issues but never err on the side of judgment. They discuss family issues that aren’t normally discussed and that’s been a huge part of my life. People know I’ve had a big life so directors know they don’t need to fill me in. I’m filled in.”

As she finished her latte, it became clear that Heche, gorgeous in a denim miniskirt, black boots and a high pony tail, was missing two Hollywood wardrobe staples: a watch and a cellphone. When a waitress approached her booth to tell her Laffoon was on the telephone, Heche jumped out of her seat: “My son! I’m late to pick up my son!”

Heche took the call and rushed back to the table, where she stuffed her pony tail in a newsboy cap, put on large black sunglasses, and explained she was due to go with her husband to school to pick up Homer, whom she hadn’t see in three days. The late hour meant the couple had to forego their usual bike ride there.

Heche ran to catch up with Laffoon on Beverly, where he pulled into a parking lot and got out of their SUV to greet her before they drove off, another crisis smoothly averted.


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