A Little Irish Luck Brings the Cavanaughs Back to TV—and Love to Christine Ebersole

updated 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

If you think you've had a hot August, consider Christine Ebersole's agenda. On Aug. 8 The Cavanaughs, the off-again, on-again sitcom—starring Ebersole as a fiery, flame-haired, frequently married, failed Vegas show girl trying to settle in with her Boston-Irish family—returned to the CBS lineup. Aug. 12 marked the opening of Mac and Me, a film starring Christine as the mother of two boys who bring home an extraterrestrial. (Phone home if the plot sounds familiar.) The next day—her usual sangfroid slightly ruffled, a veil covering what looks to be about 40,000 freckles on her face—Ebersole, 35, was scheduled to marry The Cavanaughs' musical director and composer, Bill Moloney.

Is this going to be one of those "they met cute" stories? Fortunately, no. The two were introduced in 1986 while making the pilot of The Cavanaughs, a show created by Bill's brother, Bob. (Christine's character, Kit, is loosely modeled on the Moloneys' mother, Ginger O'Dare, a former vaudeville stripper known as the Original Ball of Fire.) Critics and audiences found the comedy-drama to be pretty hot stuff when it first ran between December and March 1987. CBS, however, couldn't quite find a permanent place to put it at the time, and it wasn't until this February that they ordered 13 new episodes. That's when the relationship between Christine and Bill passed beyond the just-good-co-workers stage.

"In my job I have to analyze the show," explains Bill, 38, sitting in the worn rocker of Ebersole's cozy, antique-filled Los Angeles apartment that he now shares. "So I'd sit watching videotapes with Chris in them for hours, and I fell in love with the character she'd created. Then I became curious to know what Christine was like."

"What I had in mind was maybe collaborating with him," says Christine, an accomplished singer. "Maybe do some rock and roll." But Bill was hearing a different drummer. "We began thinking about getting married that first day," he says, adding that the two became engaged six weeks after their first dinner in February.

Ebersole's life has not always blended love and work so successfully. A native of suburban Chicago and the oldest of four children, Christine learned about theater from her father, Robert, an engineer who listened to tapes of Shakespeare's plays in the car on the way to work, and about music from her mother, Marian, a psychiatric social worker with a passion for Mahalia Jackson and Nat King Cole. After attending MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill., Ebersole headed for New York and played the role of struggling actress for four years. The high point of her theatrical career came when she portrayed Guenevere opposite Richard Burton's King Arthur in the 1980 revival of Camelot. Abruptly replacing another actress, Ebersole learned the role and songs in just three days, earning a footnote in Broadway history.

The low point of her personal and professional life occurred during her one-year stint (1981-82) on Saturday Night Live. A fish out of comic water, Ebersole says, "I don't know if I was prepared for it. I don't think I was really committed to the show, and I didn't have a lot of confidence." The greatest distraction was the breakup of her five-year marriage to soap stud Peter (All My Children) Bergman. "It was very painful," says Ebersole. "In one week I got the show, separated from my husband and moved into a new apartment." The prime cause of the marriage's failure, she says, was "a lot of separation. I was on the road much of the time we were married. It's hard when you never see a person. Looking back, I can see why I was having such a hard time on the show. Everything was falling apart in my life."

Though she didn't see much of her first husband, she'll be seeing plenty of her second—at least as long as The Cavanaughs stays on the air. Ironically, the show is up against Valerie's Family (now titled The Hogan Family), the NBC series whose cast once included Ebersole. She decided to leave when she read the part of The Cavanaughs' Kit, and breaking her contract with NBC required plenty of Kit-like tenacity. Ebersole called her former SNL boss Dick Ebersol (no relation) and asked him to lobby with NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff. Then she called Tartikoff herself—twice.

The gang at The Cavanaughs is clearly titillated that Tartikoff relented. "I'd really like to be able to say something nasty, vinegary about Christine," says Barnard Hughes, who plays the show's acerbic patriarch. "But I can't. Christine's a delight."

For the nonce, Ebersole is delighted with her circumstances. "Here am I," she says, "sitting in this position of being in love with someone I want to spend the rest of my life with."

"We're so completely in love it's right out of the movies," says Bill Moloney. "Out of a fairy tale.

"And we don't mind saying things like that," says Christine. "Our credo is 'Dare to be corny.' " There's more than a kernel of truth in that.

—By Joanne Kaufman, with Dan Knapp in Los Angeles

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