When She Gained TV's 'Real People,' Sarah Purcell Shed Her Man
A hit TV show has made more than one Hollywood cat fat, but when Sarah Purcell threw herself into NBC's Real People she waned rather than waxed. "I lost 15 pounds that I really couldn't afford to lose," admits Purcell, 32, of her anxiety about her first prime-time series. "I could barely get down a salad for dinner. I guess I got a little anorexic." Happily, Real People—an up-tempo meld closer to Candid Camera than to Charles Kuralt—survived its own lean times and now is in the Top 10. Purcell, too, is back in trim with 130 pounds on her 5'8½" frame. "The fear is still there," says Sarah of her butterflies. "But you just cover it up with bravado."
Career pressures have also caused a more serious loss. Six months ago Sarah split from her husband of nine years, filmmaker Joe Purcell, who occasionally produces and directs Real People segments. "Our careers just got so intertwined there was no respite," says Sarah. "All we did socially and professionally and personally was business. I just had to get away from it." She moved into a second house they were buying as an investment. "We may get back together again. I may remarry. I just don't know,' says Sarah. "I certainly don't want to be alone all my life. I know what I need to be happy, and I know it better now that I'm on my own."
A primary need is runaway success. "I want a lot for myself, things I don't even know I want yet," Sarah declares. "I want to be...great." Such drive has been characteristic since she broke into TV in 1973 substituting as weather girl for San Diego's KFMB—a job once held by Raquel Welch. "By my second newscast," Sarah remembers, "I was telling the director where to put the cameras—they had created a monster." She then set out to become early morning hostess of Sun Up San Diego. "I nagged, and eventually they fired the other girl and gave me the job," says Purcell. "But she wanted out anyway and was happy to get severance pay." The next step up was to A.M. Los Angeles, with co-host Regis Philbin, and a breakthrough with The Better Sex as one of the first female game show emcees. Then she abruptly quit to try acting. "It was a big, scary leap," says Sarah, whose credits now include Wonder Woman, Charlie's Angels and the ill-fated Billy Jack Goes to Washington, "but it was a question of 'need' rather than 'want.' Acting is what I like best."
Fittingly, the "Protestant work ethic" was stressed during her affluent San Diego childhood. She was born Sarah Pentecost in Richmond, Ind., the youngest of three children of an anesthesiologist father and stockbroker mother. She dropped out of L.A.'s Woodbury University for secretarial work and then toured through Europe. Her meeting in Spain with her future husband was Hemingwayesque. "We were in Pamplona for the running of the bulls, and he offered me a glass of champagne on a street corner."
These days Purcell pads around in running shoes and jogging suit during her free time, works out thrice weekly, entertains friends informally ("sitting on the floor for wine and cheese") and indulges herself by shopping for luxuries. "Every week the show's looking good, I figure I can afford it." Eventually she hopes to direct. "I want," Sarah sums up, "to take responsibility for my failures as well as my successes."
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