FEW ACTRESSES ARE STEAMING UP THE screen these days like Linda Hart. In the new Clint Eastwood movie, A Perfect World, Hart plays a seductive waitress who teases Kevin Costner with a pickle and winds up cavorting with him atop a desk. Then, on Dec. 12, with her old pal Belte Midler in the CBS version of Gypsy, Hart plays Mazeppa, the brassy stripper who "bumps it with a trumpet" in the show-stopping number "You Gotta Have a Gimmick."
So why, with these two credits in the can, has Hart been spending such an anxious autumn? Simply because her parents, both evangelical ministers, will eventually see her performances. "As a child," she says, "I was always the pastor's daughter. I couldn't wear makeup or nail polish or a lot of jewelry." When Hart finally saw A Perfect World, she says, she was relieved to see that "most of my derriere was left on the cutting-room floor." And will her skimpy outfit in Gypsy raise eyebrows in the Reverend Mr. Hart's household? "I couldn't even wear miniskirts in the'60s," Hart says. "I led a very conservative life."
And an unconventional one. In fact, Hart has been at work on a script about her early days—a sort of The Wallons Meet Billy Sunday. She was born in Dallas to Ralph Hart, an evangelical minister and faith healer from a poor family, and Toni Eddy, who came from a wealthy Dallas clan. According to family legend, Ralph was run over by a truck at age 16, pronounced dead, then revived by his father through the laying on of hands. Ralph and Toni married eventually, and Toni sold her grand piano and jewelry to buy Ralph's first tent and truck. Linda recorded her first hymn with her parents when she was 4. On tour, she belted out gospel to as many as 10,000 worshippers a night, then sold albums in the back of the tent.
Her formal education was spotty at best. "I went to 17 schools in the second grade," she remembers. "My parents wouldn't tell them I was only going to be there two weeks."
Meanwhile, her family decided to rent a theater of their own in Detroit and also bought the old Hiram Walker mansion, complete with 32 rooms and an elevator. Over the years, Linda, her parents and her younger brothers, Larry and Gary, recorded a dozen gospel albums and earned five Grammy nominations. "We were gospel singing stars before televangelism," Hart says proudly. "We dressed in western clothes and cowboy hats and were on every Saturday after Soupy Sales."
After high school, Hart studied acting in Los Angeles, then moved to Nashville with her family in 1971 when the Harts landed a record deal. Hart joined a modeling agency there, became Miss Datsun and even worked as a makeup artist on Johnny Cash's TV show, finally graduating—after Cash heard her singing at a staff Christmas party—to a regular on-camera spot. In 1973 she joined the New Christy Minstrels and toured the world with them for two years.
In 1978 she answered an ad in the Hollywood Reporter and wound up as one of Bette Midler's backup singers, the Harlettes; the two are still good friends. Hart made her Broadway debut in 1987 playing a gangster's moll in Anything Goes.
When she auditioned for A Perfect World, says casting director Phyllis Huffman, Eastwood, the movie's director as well as its costar, "absolutely adored her. So when I told him she was a little skittish about the lovemaking scenes, he said, 'Tell her not to worry, it's okay.' " (Translation, according to Hart: "You don't have to take anything off." So she didn't.) As for her intimate scene with Costner, Hart says, "We were kissing and kissing and Clint never said, 'Cut!' " Not that she's complaining. "I couldn't imagine it being a nicer three minutes," she says.
She has spent an even nicer four years with Bill Forster, 43, a New York investment banker with whom she shares a Manhattan brownstone, a Beverly Hills duplex and a house in Mystic, Conn. Hart wears an engagement ring these days, but says, "Neither of us has ever been married, and we're very scared about it." And if times ever get hard again, Linda has offers to rejoin either of her parents. They divorced 10 years ago; Ralph is still preaching in Detroit, and Toni runs a wedding chapel and the Heartland Foundation for underprivileged kids in Las Vegas. "She's kind of like the Rosalind Russell of the '90s," Linda says. Whatever happens, Hart won't hesitate to call on her parents to summon help from above. After all, she says, "this is a tough business I'm in."
TOBY KAHN in New York City
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