Playing Gary Gilmore's Girl in Executioner's Song Touched Lightly on Rosanna Arquette's Past

updated 11/29/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/29/1982 01:00AM

Until now 23-year-old Rosanna Arquette has been best known as the girlfriend of musician Steve Porcaro, 25, keyboardist for the rock group Toto. The honey-blond actress who somehow contrives to look both gaminesque and voluptuous was the namesake for Toto's summer hit Rosanna. She has become such a part of the band's entourage that the six-member group has affectionately dubbed her Roko—"You know," she explains, "like Yoko."

Next week, however, she comes into her own. In NBC's harrowing four-hour drama The Executioner's Song, Arquette plays Nicole Baker, the sweet-faced teenaged divorcée who was Gary Gilmore's girlfriend. In a cold rage after she jilted him, Gilmore killed two men during robberies and was executed by a firing squad at the Utah State Prison in 1977. Norman Mailer, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the tragedy, wrote the two-part TV drama. Tommy Lee Jones plays Gil-more, and Rosanna, who won the role over Mariel Hemingway, Tatum O'Neal and Diane Lane, seems stunningly right as Nicole.

"When I first met Nicole, we talked through an entire night in my hotel room," says Rosanna of Gilmore's ex-girlfriend, who is now deeply religious, remarried and living in another state. "After she saw the film she told me she loved it. 'Rosanna,' she said, 'you did me! You did me!' " The man who brought them together is controversial journalistic entrepreneur Lawrence Schiller, who bought the rights to Gilmore's life story for $125,000. Mailer had to buy rights to use Schiller's interview tapes for his book. Schiller, who directed the NBC film, says, "Rosanna gave the impression that she had experienced what Nicole had—come from the gutter, so to speak."

Well, hardly. The granddaughter of the late radio and TV comedian Cliff (Charley Weaver) Arquette, Rosanna was born in New York and raised with her four siblings in a theatrical family. Her father, Lewis, is an actor-director and her mother, Marti, is a writer. She made her stage debut at 8 in children's theater in Chicago under her father's direction, but, like Nicole, her childhood ended early. Unable to adapt to her family's move to an artistic commune in Virginia called Skymont ("to be persecuted at school because I had black friends was too much to take"), she left at 13 to live with friends of her parents in New Jersey. Two years later in Provo, Utah (Gilmore's last home), she and pals were picked up by the police for hitchhiking and released after their parents were called. "I wasn't raised with any restrictions," Rosanna says. A marriage at 17 ended a year later. "I was totally attracted and in love," says Rosanna, "but my husband was detrimental to my well-being."

About that time a part in a small L.A. stage production led to a co-starring role opposite Bette Davis in NBC's 1978 Dark Secret of Harvest Home, which launched her career. She appeared with Timothy Hutton in ABC's A Long Way Home last year, with Richard Thomas in CBS' recent Johnny Belinda, and is starring in director John Sayles' feature Baby, It's You. "Most of the things I've done I wish people wouldn't remember," rues Arquette. Her hardest lesson was as the teenage hitchhiker who stripped topless in Blake Edwards' 1981 S.O.B. "I thought I had some kind of a deal where I wouldn't have to do nudity," Rosanna gripes. Though she appears nude in the upcoming Baby, It's You and in the European version of The Executioner's Song, Arquette maintains "Those scenes were done tastefully."

Arquette vows she won't do any more nude scenes; they are a sore point with boyfriend Porcaro. Even so, he says, "I'm crazy about her. I respect her talent and what she has accomplished." The couple recently moved into a two-bedroom house in North Hollywood, complete with pool, bought from their best friends, actress Wendy Smith Howard, 24, and her husband, keyboardist James Howard. Though Arquette and Porcaro are planning to marry and start a family in a few years, their sights are fixed on their careers for now. Steve is working on Toto's next album, and Rosanna has taken time off to set up house and contemplate her next project. Says Arquette, who recently formed Bosco Productions (named after her favorite childhood drink), "I really want to do comedy. I'm sick of crying."

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