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People Top 5
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PEOPLE Top 5 are the most-viewed stories on the site over the past three days, updated every 60 minutes
- February 12, 1979
- Vol. 11
- No. 6
The Prettiest Straight Man in Hollywood, Mork's Friend Pam Dawber, Is Off and Rolling
Well, as Pam and earthlings of all ages quickly found out, it was from Ork, the mythical planet from which he visits Mindy in Boulder, Colo. as an extraterrestrial Marco Polo. Williams' brilliantly sophisticated mixture of wisecracks, double-talk and improvisations makes Mork & Mindy sizzle, but Pam Dawber's stabilizing presence is just as vital a part of this season's runaway hit. Even with the cutest nose this side of Mary Tyler Moore, it's not easy to play straight woman to Robin's antics. "Pam is marvelous," praises Mork director Howard Storm. "Her job is harder than Robin's. Where would Costello have been without Abbott? Or Lewis without Martin?"
Nowhere—which is exactly how Pam felt at first. A 5'7½" ex-model whose only previous acting credits were in a regional musical and a bit part in Robert Altman's A Wedding, Dawber, now 27, openly acknowledges that she could have been along for the ride on a one-shot Orkan show: "I'm not a comedienne. I'm an actress. Next to Robin I felt boring." One heartless reviewer, she moans, "called me a Marie Osmond clone with no comedic timing and the appeal of cold margarine." It didn't help either when executive producer Garry Marshall suggested she fill out her role by wearing a padded bra. (Pam firmly refused.)
What made the difference is a rapport with the incandescently funny Williams that's so genuine he still breaks her up during shooting. For one thing, they both grew up in Detroit suburbs just 15 miles from each other (hers was Farmington; his was Bloomfield Hills). "All you have to do is look in his eyes," she says. "They're so clear and he's so guileless. Little by little he started letting me in. Once I saw how the chemistry worked on film, I relaxed a bit too." (Theirs was, in fact, a match made in the editing room when Marshall spliced a clip of Pam from a failed TV pilot together with another of Robin's debut on Happy Days. They appear to be having a conversation and—eureka!—electricity. Dawber was "taken aback" to learn by reading Variety that she'd been cast.)
Pam's lift-off to stardom calls for an emotional steadiness that just a few years ago, she confesses, she couldn't have mustered. "I've always been quite a happy person, but when I'm low, I'm pretty darn low," she says. There had been "a bad love affair here and there" while she was modeling and moonlighting as a commercial artist in New York. One day in October 1974 she naively accepted an offer to fly to Zaire for the Ali-Foreman fight. "I was faking it and was in way over my head," she admits. When an older man revealed his intentions to become more than a friend, Pam split and had to bribe her way out of the African country. "After returning to New York I began having tunnel vision, heart palpitations, throwing up in the morning," says Pam, who blames part of her trouble on crazy dieting. "I went to a mental health clinic, saw a doctor and cried and cried."
Then she was stunned by a real tragedy: the death of her younger sister, Leslie, at 22, during open-heart surgery. "It looked like I was the golden girl of the family," Pam remembers, "the aggressive older, prettier sister. She was the sicker, younger sister and had a severe inferiority complex." But the girls grew close, and when Leslie died, "suddenly my whole stability was shaken." In all, six other family members died in three years. "I lost a sense of myself. I was wandering around not knowing who I was, what life was about, what I was going to do. I was in a heavy, heavy depression." During therapy, she continues, "I found out a lot about childhood traumas, my sister, guilt and sibling rivalry. It was painful but the best thing I ever did. So now I'm crazy and I know it."
Her mother, who operates a stock-photo agency, and her commercial artist father still live in the suburb where Pam grew up. A dropout from flute, guitar and ballet lessons by age 14, Pam enjoyed painting (she still does portraits) and always wanted to sing. "Every time my parents went out, my sister and I would put on the One Hundred and One Dalmatians sound track," Pam remembers. "Leslie and I would act out lots of records, but I got the best parts. I was Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Wendy, and Leslie got all the rest."
After "just barely" graduating from North Farmington H.S., Pam enrolled at Oakland Community College and began to model locally and tour nationally as an adornment at auto shows. At the end of her first year she met a friend in New York and "as a lark" accompanied her to a model agency. Bingo. Soon Pam was banking $50-$60,000 a year posing for Sears, Penney's and Montgomery Ward catalogues and making TV commercials for Neet hair remover and Tupperware.
It wasn't the top but close enough for her to take acting and voice lessons and pound on the right doors. "After auditioning for a few years I thought, 'If it doesn't work I'll have to be realistic and drop out.' " Her fallback was a plan to teach TV modeling. "I knew I was prime because of my type, my look and everything." Her chance came with a part in a 1977 production of Sweet Adeline at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House and a role as the girlfriend jilted by Desi Arnaz Jr. in A Wedding. Her luckiest break was auditioning for but not getting the lead in Tabitha, a 1976 ABC flop that could have deep-sixed her career long before Mork & Mindy.
For all her present success—she haggled for, and got, a salary "close to" Williams' estimated $15,000 a week—Pam carefully avoids ostentation. "I'm not going to run out and buy a big Mercedes or a huge mansion in Beverly Hills," she says. She sublets a modest two-bedroom cottage in Hollywood Hills from soap actor Bob (As the World Turns) Lipton, who is living in her apartment in Manhattan's Tudor City. In L.A. Dawber owns few furnishings aside from knickknacks and a comforter blazoned with the word "Star," a gift from a friend. Her retreat is a cabin back East in New York state's Catskill Mountains, which she bought as an investment during her modeling days. "It's old and homey, a total fantasy vacation place with deer antlers over the fireplace," says Pam, who canoes and skis despite the loss of a defective kidney by surgery when she was 19.
Ever since her romance with Taos ski pro Weems Westfeldt fizzled out last summer, Pam has dated only sporadically. "I've lived alone, been lonely sometimes, but also quite happy," she says. "I was never the girl in high school who had a boyfriend for years. My longest relationship has been 18 months. I've thought maybe I'm really superficial and unable to have a relationship. What I've found is that people are attracted by my independence, and then they try to squelch it."
Pam is still skittish about marriage. "I know people who lived together five years, got married, then divorced in six months. That scares me," she admits. "I need to end up with someone who is strong, intelligent, independent, someone I really admire—sensitive, sensuous, warm, a sense of humor," she rattles off. "You think that's unusual?" she shrugs. "Maybe that's why I'm living alone."
So far Dawber seems as stubbornly disinclined to squander her fame as her bank account. She resists TV guest shots and talk shows and is instead preparing to try out for the lead in a CBS miniseries version of Haywire, Brooke Hayward's harrowing autobiography. Pam is convinced that "I have the emotional recall to do it because of all the deaths and tension in our family." Unlike such TV-spawned singers as Cheryl Ladd and Lynda Carter, Dawber refuses to air her four-octave operatic soprano on Mork & Mindy, despite a hint from Garry Marshall. "I want to work into everything slowly and not blow it," she explains. Pam has even said no to horsing around on Battle of the Network Stars. "I don't feel I have to cash in right away," she concludes. "I believe in my talents. I'll be around for awhile."
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