With Her New Look, Her New Home and a Bright Future, Michele Greene Is L.A. Law's Mouse That Soared
04/04/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
Back in elementary school, when she was a shy and somewhat weird little girl, Michele Greene was convinced she could fly. "I absolutely believed this," she says. "I would stand on benches in the school yard and jump off them repeatedly, wiggling my arms. I was kind of an eccentric kid; I got a little more mainstream once I got into junior high."
Those early flight patterns may have been unimpressive, but Greene, 26, is flying high these days as Abby Perkins, the young legal eagle on TV's highly rated L.A. Law. Her change in altitude reflects a change in attitude by the show's producers, who last season had her wearing frumpy suits, pageboy haircuts and a perpetually frantic look—the last probably justified, since Abby had to cope with an alcoholic husband, an untidy divorce and the abduction of her son. "They wanted me to look sort of drab," says Greene. "They wanted the character to start out not having a real sense of herself, except that she was smart and had gone to law school. This year they wanted Abby to evolve from being this sort of nerd. This year I'm a woman...and a natural blond."
Those who know her offscreen find it hard to imagine Abby's alter ego without a sense of self. "Michele is sweet and all that," says Corbin Bernsen, who plays pond-scum alimony attorney Arnold Becker on the series. "But there's a very determined and strong underbelly to her personality. She does what she wants. She doesn't take anything from anybody."
"My mother says my name should be Michele I-will-do-it-myself-thank-you Greene," confirms the actress, who credits her mother, Dorita, for fostering that feistiness. Greene's father, a Las Vegas casino bar manager, died when she was 4 months old and her brother, Roland (now a Harvard English professor), was 4. Dorita "always wanted Roland and me to be really independent," she says. "She always told us, 'Whatever you want to do, just work hard and you can do it.' "
At Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, Greene found what she wanted to do. "My mother told me to take drama classes. She said I was too shy and it would be good for me. And I liked it." Later, while studying acting at USC, Michele shunned the "theater dweebs" ("they dress in black and change their names to Chekhov characters") but joined a college repertory company and began landing roles on TV shows, including Simon & Simon and Highway to Heaven. Petite (5'4", 104 lbs.) and youthful looking, "I was 21 and playing 14-year-olds," she says.
After college and a run on the short-lived series Bay City Blues, Greene hit her first slump. With work scarce, she volunteered for Amigos de las Americas, a public health project dedicated to improving sanitation in Latin America, and spent a month in Guanajuato, Mexico, building toilets for the poor. She calls the 1985 trip to reality "the best month of my life" and still returns to visit the Mexican community each year.
Six months after her return, Greene answered a call from her old Bay City Blues producer, Steven Bochco, and was hired as L.A. Law's Abby Perkins. "He said, 'Look, I'm not hiring shlubs. I'm hiring talented people who happen to be my friends,' " recalls Greene. "He's a doll." Now that her character has abandoned her dress-for-success, starch-collar primness, Greene hopes the loosening-up process has only begun. "I'd love for Abby to have a horizontal collision," she says. "We can only wait and see."
Off-camera, Greene is avoiding collisions in any direction. A four-year live-in relationship with a Hollywood director ended last year, and she now lives alone in a newly purchased 10-room Spanish-style Hollywood Hills home with her two dogs. Her private life is as quiet as that of the pre-renaissance Abby, and unwanted visitors are greeted by a security company's Armed Response signs in the front yard. Greene collects antique toys, spends an hour on the phone with her brother each day, and dabbles in doll making. Her main weakness, apart from nachos and french fries, is crystals, which she displays in almost every room. "I have them all over my life," she says. "I have one around my neck. I have one in my pocket. It's like anything else in life. If you believe it, if you think it helps you, then I think it'll help you."
At the moment, the crystals seem to be working at peak potency. Greene's new look and beefier role on L.A. Law has her mother, who lives nearby, busy answering Michele's fan mail at the rate of several hundred letters a week. "It could end next week—Abby could be hit by a car—but I certainly hope not," says Greene. "It feels so good. The other day I was in the bathroom, and I was listening to Emmylou Harris: 'One of these days I won't have to chop no wood/I can be bad or I can be good.' I stood up and shouted, 'It's now! It's right now!' "
—By Joanne Kaufman, with Michael Alexander in Los Angeles