Ask No More for a Manicure by Sandra Bernhard—She's the New Queen of Comedy

updated 03/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Newcomer Sandra Bernhard, 27, figures it's poetic justice that her acclaimed starring debut opposite Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy has Hollywood at her feet. After all, she'd been at its feet for five years, painting and buffing the famous tootsies of Jaclyn Smith, Tina Louise and Dyan Cannon, among others. "It was all 'file those nails, push those cuticles,' " recalls Bernhard of her tenure as manicurist-pedicurist at Cia Coiffeurs in Beverly Hills, where she went to work in 1974.

But even when Tina didn't like her jokes and Jackie was a lousy tipper, Sandra never groveled. The job was just a way to stake herself while developing a career as a standup comic and singer. Waitressing was out. "It's such a show business cliché" she says. "Besides, I hate the idea of struggling artists—it bores me."

But struggle she did. With her skinny frame (106 pounds stretched taut on 5'10"), Streisand nose and Tina Turner lips, the angular, aggressive Bernhard takes some adjusting to. But audiences at small comedy showcases like L.A.'s Comedy Store couldn't take their eyes off her. By 1978 she had turned in her emery board and hit the comedy trail full-time, flirting outrageously with the customers with lines like "I want to show you my breasts—they'll bring you to your knees."

King of Comedy director Martin Scorsese described Bernhard's stage quality as "sexual menace" and perfect for the role of Masha—a rich neurotic who helps De Niro kidnap a Johnny Carson-like TV personality played by Lewis. Sandra won the role over 200 actresses, she says, because of her "physical presence" and knack for improvisation. "I basically wrote the part when I auditioned."

Bernhard gives Scorsese and De Niro high marks for professionalism, but her big seduction scene with Lewis when he's taped up like a mummy caused some problems. Scorsese took two weeks to film the scene, and Lewis grew irritated. "He was very uptight," and stayed aloof off camera as well. Though he gave her a few acting tips, Sandra explains, "We didn't become bosom buddies." Bernhard's reviews, in many cases better than her co-stars', have dimmed her memory of the difficulties. "A comic triumph," raved one critic. She seems well on her way to achieving her goal to become "the Meryl Streep of the comic world." Attired in sweat pants, Sandra accosted a startled De Niro and Scorsese on the street just after winning the role. "I kissed them both and they looked at me like, 'Who is this crazy bitch, anyway?' "

Born in Flint, Mich., the daughter of a proctologist father and an abstract artist mother, Sandra grew up "the youngest of four intense children." The only girl, she expressed her individuality in her choice of dolls. "I had a Tressie doll, real cheap and gutterish. I liked her. I didn't like Barbie. She was too mainstream."

Moving to Arizona when she was 10, Sandra attended Saguaro High in Scottsdale but complained it stifled her. So after graduation she followed in her brothers' footsteps and went to a kibbutz in Israel for eight months. "It toughened me up," she says.

In her act Sandra loves to talk about her youth ("I miss our maid, Marie. She used to come over and make tuna salad and we'd watch Let's Make a Deal while my mom cleaned the house"). But now her focus is on the future. She still lives in a tiny walkup apartment she shares with another actress, Amanda Bearse, on Manhattan's Upper West Side. And when she is not on the road being funny, "I pump iron," she says. "I have a tattoo hanging on my wall. I haven't committed to it yet." There is no steady guy at the moment ("I always seem to go with the wrong kind"). For her next film, she'd like to play a cowgirl or film a short story she wrote about a woman in space and the affairs she has with aliens. "She's tough, but sensitive at the same time," Sandra explains. "She sits back and watches, then takes over the situation. I guess it's a little bit the way I am."

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