Playing Dumb, Jean Kasem Gives a Brassy Tint to The Tortellis

updated 03/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Though it's hard to fathom in light of her TV character, The Tortellis' dimbulb blonde, Jean Kasem, once lost a job because she was too brainy. Auditioning for a news post at L.A.'s KCOP in 1980, Kasem knew how to write copy, she says, and "was knowledgeable about what was going on in the world. But I wasn't prepared for how much show business had crept into the news. It was all chitchat and folderol. They told me I was too serious."

Suffice it to say that Kasem, 32, has since wised up. Now she acts dumb. Very dumb. In fact her Loretta Tortelli—an aspiring Las Vegas lounge singer with a statuesque coif and clothes garish enough to make Liberace do 360s in his grave—plumbs new levels of dumb. So what if her husband, Nick (Dan Hedaya), ex-spouse of Cheers' opinionated barmaid Carla, is a ne'er-do-well lowlife whose noblest ambition is to be "TV repairman to the stars"? She idolizes the slug. And so what if Nick is giving the eye to every woman in sight. In the great tradition of ditzy TV blondes, Loretta remains blindly optimistic. "She's the Jiminy Cricket of the show," says Kasem; if Loretta's brain is half empty, "her glass is always half full."

Kasem, in contrast, is dealing from a full deck. For starters, she attended the University of Guam at 16. She's also a natural brunette, and her voice is at least an octave lower than Loretta's squeak. After only a few minutes in the three-bedroom Beverly Wilshire Hotel apartment she shares with her husband, deejay Casey Kasem, it becomes apparent that Jean is quite articulate. She can move through such topics as industry business, stepchildren and world politics more easily than Vanna White can pick her favorite vowel. Mentioning that two of her closest friends are consumer reporter David (Fight Back!) Horowitz and his wife, Suzanne, Jean says, "David was a war correspondent in Nam. The first time we went out to dinner together, David and I talked about the war while Casey and Suzanne twiddled their thumbs."

Kasem is well-acquainted with the war. Because of her recurring pneumonia, her father—a civil servant who purchased military supplies—transferred his family from cold Portsmouth, N.H. to warm Guam in 1963. Things grew hotter during the war, when the military base at Guam was used as headquarters for the Strategic Air Command. "We lived right by the ammo dump," says Kasem, who was born Jean Thompson. "We saw them bury guys right outside our school window. There were 21-gun salutes every 15 minutes." After nearly drowning when she was 14, Jean decided to do good works by volunteering at the Navy hospital. "It was right after the Tet Offensive," she says. "It was the worst time I can remember. They were operating in hallways and elevators. Evacuees were stacked three high in the halls. I grew up very fast in Guam."

Jean grew up so fast she married a Navy lieutenant when she was 17, a choice she now calls a mistake. She worked as a waitress and saleswoman while following her husband to bases throughout the Pacific. When the marriage ended after six years, Kasem moved to California and tried to break into broadcast journalism. Rejected for such sundry reasons as being too tall as well as too serious, the 5'10½" Kasem joined an acting workshop to vent her frustration. Noticing that she was the only non-blond, male or female, in the class, she dyed her hair. Roles in Matt Houston, Fantasy Island and Alice followed.

Her career breakthrough came in 1983 when Cheers was casting for two new characters, Nick and Loretta Tortelli. By chance, Kasem was paired with Dan Hedaya. The physically odd couple had NBC execs laughing as soon as they walked into the audition room. "She's tall, blond and buxom," explains Hedaya. "I'm short, dark and not buxom."

The same can be said of her husband, 5'6" Casey Kasem, 55, whose syndicated radio show, American Top 40, is heard on 1,035 stations each Sunday. The two met on Dec. 21, 1979 (six months after Casey's seven-year marriage ended) and were wed a year to the day later. The busy Kasems, who now live in a hotel for the convenience of room service, try to see Casey's three children as much as possible.

Though Casey wields his share of showbiz clout, he says he's done nothing to help his wife's career except to give her guidance. "I take pleasure in seeing talent develop," he says. "She has a marvelous quality that only a handful of beautiful blond actresses have. It's the same quality Judy Holliday and Marilyn Monroe had—comedy timing." Jean isn't bothered by such comparisons. "Some actresses have had trouble dealing with their dumb-blonde image," she says. "I don't. I can do other roles, but if all people ever want from me is Loretta, I'll continue to do her. You have to be smart to play dumb."

For a gallery of TV's other dumb blonds, turn to page 95.

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