There is an undeniable camaraderie on Warner's Soundstage 29 in Burbank, where My Sister Sam is taped. Series star Pam Dawber, whose pixieish beauty actually seems to have grown rather than diminished with age, is sitting with the rest of the cast, listening to actor David Naughton read horoscopes from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. He saves Dawber, a Libra (10/18/52), for last. Among other pronouncements, Naughton reads that "trips can develop suddenly." This merits a crack from co-star Jenny O'Hara. "Hey," she tells Dawber, "maybe that means you'll get out early and go cook dinner for what's-his-name."
You don't have to be psychic to know what's-his-name's name. It's Dawber's fiancé, Mark Harmon, 35, dubbed the Sexiest Man Alive by this magazine in 1986 (and still the reigning champ until you, the readers, clamor for a replacement). Her colleagues don't have to rub any New Age crystals to know what Harmon (and My Sister Sam) means to Dawber. After emotional problems, a post-Mork & Mindy career slide and what she calls "a bad love affair here and there," Dawber, at 34, has reached a threshold in life, and she's damned glad to get there.
Of course, it's a little hard to tell that from her public comments, because few exist. Since Dawber and Harmon met last March at a party given by a mutual friend, neither has discussed their relationship. But even the most discreet lady can slip once in a while, and a woman in love can be forgiven.
Their silence, says Dawber, is a protective strategy. "We're not trying to keep something secret, but if you don't want it totally exploited by the press, you have to." She also acknowledges that silence has a price. Because she and Harmon are one of Hollywood's most reclusive couples, rumors about them are rife. For example: They just broke up. "You mean there's a story that we broke up?" she asks. "You're kidding! It's hysterical how starved people are for poop." How about the one that says they're secretly married? "It must have been a slow news week," she remarks. "Why would we be secretly married? What would be the point?"
Engaged since the summer, Dawber admits that the nuptials will be "quiet and personal." She's determined to avoid the kind of circus atmosphere that accompanied the wedding of her friends Julianne and Bruce Springsteen, with whom she and Harmon have double-dated. "Julianne was in tears almost the entire time," says Dawber. "There were helicopters hovering over her parents' house. People were camped out on their front lawn. Granted, we're not talking Springsteen here, but if we choose a big church, everyone will find out about it. All of a sudden we'll have Entertainment Tonight out there with microphones."
And with justification. You can make a case for Dawber and Harmon being TV's most-ogled twosome of late. Harmon, formerly St. Elsewhere's philandering plastic surgeon, is finishing a month long stint romancing Cybill Shepherd on Moonlighting; he plays an astronaut whose shirt takes off more than he does. Meanwhile Dawber has held her popularity with TV viewers: My Sister Sam, in which she plays a freelance photographer whose teenage sister moves in unexpectedly, has hovered around the Top-20 mark since its debut on CBS last October. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Sam is sandwiched between Kate & Allie and Newhart on Monday nights. With her first starring series a hit, Dawber can add professional satisfaction to personal fulfillment. "I think when you finally work out problem areas," she says, "your life falls into place, and my life has really fallen into place."
By her own estimate Dawber's flaw was a lack of self-assertion. Though she enjoyed good relationships with ski pro Weems Westfeldt and top model Phil (Benson & Hedges) Coccioletti, Dawber often played doormat in her love life. Her career after Mork & Mindy(1978-82) was just as directionless, marked by such unremarkable TV movies as Through Naked Eyes and Last of the Great Survivors. She credits therapy with giving her the tools to break self-defeating patterns: "I've worked very hard at understanding myself, learning to be assertive. I'm past the point where I worry about people liking me. If someone says, 'Oh, she's a bitch,' I know I'm not a bitch."
Dawber started in therapy after the death of her younger sister, Leslie, in 1976. Pam's only sibling, Leslie was 22 when she died during open-heart surgery. "When a tragedy happens that big," Pam says, "you have to reassess your life." Dawber has no qualms about playing a woman who lives with a younger sister. "I guess I don't believe that death is the end," she says. "I think I've digested it in my own way. I believe my sister is somewhere, and that is a calming idea."
The daughter of a commercial artist and a photo agency operator, Pam grew up in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills. After graduating from high school, she began modeling in local fashion shows. Moving to New York at 19, Dawber was soon making $50,000 a year posing in Tupperware, Neet and Sears ads. She studied acting, make the round of auditions and soon was cast in Mork & Mindy.
The series, a ratings phenomenon when it premiered, had unraveled by its fourth season. Dawber thinks part of the problem was that Mindy was becoming less and less important. "When the network decided that Mork was the one, they took away what Mindy did. They took away the balance. I'm lucky Mindy was even mentioned in the title." Dawber also became closely identified with her spineless bubblehead character. Such confusion may have led to notices like the following: "Pam Dawber is a Marie Osmond clone with no comedic timing and the appeal of cold margarine."
Nevertheless Dawber has a way of buttering up audiences. Despite the quality of those TV flicks, her relentlessly perky image has kept her TVQ rating—a measure of her personal popularity—fairly high. Still, Dawber knows that her own appeal doesn't guarantee success for My Sister Sam. "Just because an audience likes you doesn't mean they're going to follow you," she says. "That was proven true with Mary Tyler Moore. If the show doesn't work, the show doesn't work."
Dawber has plenty of say about My Sister Sam because she's a co-owner and co-producer. The series was developed by her company, Pony Productions. "I have the power, if I want, to dig in my heels and kick and scream," she says, mixing metaphors, "but that's not my personality." Dawber distinguishes between being an assertive actress and a queen bee star. "I remember Raquel Welch coming into Mork & Mindy," she says, citing an example of the latter. "You wouldn't believe the things that were done for her. These women are terrors."
Dawber takes an opposite tack and apparently succeeds. "Pam hasn't been jaded by the business," says David Naughton, who plays Sam's neighbor. Nor does she flaunt her relationship with Harmon. "They don't play it up at all," says Naughton. "He's come to the shows, but he keeps a real low profile."
In spite of their best efforts, the couple's privacy is increasingly going public. Dawber is making plans to sell her two-bedroom Hollywood Hills home and move in with Harmon. Though she already keeps more than a toothbrush at Mark's nine-room rustic Pacific Palisades retreat, Pam is a bit misty-eyed about moving. Fetching a drink from her fridge, she looks at her vintage radio and collection of salt and pepper shakers and sighs, "I'm going to hate leaving my kitchen." As she downs a glass of fruit punch, Dawber is reminded of a list of requirements she once said she wanted in a man, including strength, intelligence, independence, sensitivity, sensuousness, warmth and a sense of humor to top it off. Guys fitting that description aren't exactly falling off the trees like ripe avocados, so does Harmon come close to filling the bill? "Well, I guess so," she laughs, then delivers her fruit-punch line. "He's fabulous."
- James Grant.