04/11/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
Unlike the huddled masses in steerage, she came to America from Italy in star vehicles such as Two Women, for which she won an Oscar in 1961. Nevertheless, to the applause of construction workers, Sophia Loren donned a hard hat, entered the haunted Great Hall on Ellis Island in New York Bay and talked to the press about the immigrant search for the American dream, which is the theme of her two-part miniseries, The Fortunate Pilgrim, based on Mario Puzo's 1965 book and airing this week on NBC. "If you stop a moment, you hear with your fantasy Italian words echoing amid Spanish, Polish, Russian, French, German," declared the actress, 53, who in Pilgrim plays the driven matriarch of an immigrant family. Accompanied by Chrysler boss Lee Iacocca, himself the son of Italian immigrants, Loren pledged a donation to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, of which Iacocca is chairman emeritus and which hopes to restore the historical site by the fall of 1989. Iacocca's group is currently about $15 million short of their $140 million goal. For a $100 donation anyone can place the names of friends or relatives on the building's American Immigrant Wall of Honor.
On the evening of her visit, at a reception at Lincoln Center following a screening of the five-hour TV drama, Martin Sheen, Anthony Quinn, Billy Dee Williams, Drew Barrymore
, Placido Domingo and others turned out to salute the star. But ultimately this was a family gathering. Flanked by her husband, Carlo Ponti, who produced the miniseries, and their two sons, Carlo, 19, and Eduardo, 15, Loren revealed the model for her character: her mother, Romilda, 73. "So much of the movie is so close to what my mother would do," she said. "I feel privileged. The film is an homage to her."