Better Sassy Than Classy?

updated 01/27/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/27/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

MANY ACTRESSES WHO HAVE MEASURED out their careers playing beach-blanket bimbos once had dreams of Shakespeare. Kate Nelligan did Shakespeare and dreamed of playing a bimbo or two. Hauntingly beautiful and possessed of limitless talent, she shook the English theater world with her '70s renditions of classic heroines (As You Like It, Measure for Measure), then went on to conquer Broadway in O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten and David Hare's Plenty.

But Nelligan wanted to make a broader impact—and have a bit of fun. "I left England for America because I wanted to be in a country that was open and crazy and where it didn't matter if I played Lady Macbeth," says the Ontario native, now 40, married and expecting.

It's taken nearly a decade of effort, but Nelligan has finally got her wish. First she nabbed the role of Cora, the wisecracking, mattress-hopping waitress in Garry Marshall's Frankie & Johnny. Next came her turn as Nick Nolte's driven and destructive mother in Barbra Streisand's The Prince of Tides. Both directors were pleased with the results. To Streisand, Nelligan is "strong and powerful and yet simple." Says an admiring Marshall: "Anyone who can play Nick Nolte's mother for Streisand and a slut for me has quite a range."

Indeed, but gaining appreciation for that range hasn't been easy. Nelligan, relaxing on an overstuffed sofa in her new six-room New York City apartment, has been persistently confused with the overpowering women she has played onstage. "I've been told I scare people," she ruefully admits. "For 10 years I'd walk into a room and people would shrink against the wall." Nelligan adds: "Every night after I'd finished those plays, I'd go home and not socialize with any of the actors because I was too shy."

Not so shy that Kate hasn't, by her own admission, "always loved men. I'm committed to my own independence and equal rights, but in my adolescence boys were the first great excitement, hope and pleasure. I'm still like that." Any broken hearts along the way? "Oh, honey," she replies with a trilling laugh, "I've been doing this for 20 years, so of course I've broken some hearts. Wouldn't it be a tragedy if I hadn't?"

She also concedes that problems with her mother drew her to men. Nelligan grew up in London, Ont., the fourth of six children of Patrick Nelligan, a factory repairman, and Josephine, whom Kate characterizes as "very powerful, very brilliant and very, very crazy." Jay (as her mother was called) made Kate the chosen one of the children. While her siblings, Nelligan says, "were watching The Flintstones," she was carted off to dancing and tennis lessons. (As a teenager, Nelligan was a top-ranked Canadian woman amateur.)

But Jay's erratic behavior also embarrassed Kate. "I never felt like I had a childhood," says Nelligan. "Kids couldn't come home to play with me, and when I was older, guys couldn't come to pick me up. She was just too crazy, especially when she began to drink." Starting in Kate's teens, Jay was in and out of various institutions over a 10-year period for alcohol abuse and related psychological problems. (She died at 47 in 1974 in western Canada.) "Because of my mother," Nelligan admits, "I have this fear that I'm going to die in the gutter.

Her tumultuous childhood may explain why Nelligan bolted Canada for England and threw herself so furiously into her work. She joined the Bristol Old Vic, England's prestigious repertory company, in 1973. and over the next eight years made her mark on the London stage. In 1981, after filming Eye of the Needle with Donald Sutherland, she moved to Los Angeles, found herself going nowhere in films and so headed for Broadway, winning four Tony nominations.

In 1989 she wed songwriter Robert Reale, 35, "because I met the best person I've ever met in my life." She and Reale often fled Manhattan for their rural, 19th-century stone house in Bucks County, Pa., where they followed doctors' orders in their attempts to have a baby. As Kate recalls: "Our sex life was turning into a 4-H Club meeting, prodded with something here, or told, 'Now it's 7:23—go!' " Two years after they gave up, Nelligan and Reale are now expecting a son. Kate notes that her timing is exquisite. "The minute I found out I was pregnant," she says, "I was offered four film roles." But Nelligan, settled at last into a life that suits her, isn't worried. "I may end up just playing Southern grandmothers or hookers for the rest of my life," she says. "But that's fine. There's a lot of need for those."

MARK GOODMAN
DAVID HUTCHINGS in New York City

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