ONE RECENT RAINY EVENING, ACTRESS Mariska Hargitay and her fiancé, Warner Bros, executive Lance Young, arrived at their two-bedroom Hollywood Hills home to find that the roof had fallen in—literally. And that wasn't all. "The whole backyard was completely flooded, the pool filled with mud from a mudslide," Hargitay recalls. "We knew it was gonna cost us a lot of money, but what are you gonna do? In life you have two choices. You can laugh or you can cry. You have to laugh. You have to!"
In her 28 years, Mariska (pronounced Mar-ISH-ka) has had ample occasion to choose. At age 3, she was a survivor of the terrible car crash that killed her mother, B-movie bombshell Jayne Mansfield. "When something is taken away from you like that, you fill yourself in other ways," says Hargitay. Hers was developing a flair for humor, which comes in handy when contemplating her current role as Det. Angela Garcia on CBS's Tequila & Bonetti, an action series about a cop (Jack Scalia) and his gruff French mastiff. Though the show is fetching good ratings, more than one critic has said it barks. "But the critics have been wonderful to the actors," Hargitay says. "They don't even mention us! So, love those critics!"
Her funny-girl approach doesn't surprise Tequila's executive producer, Donald Bellisario, who vividly remembers the day she auditioned and gave a sly twist to a tragic monologue about a dead husband. "The other actresses played it straight, but Mariska played it with laughter," he says. "She told this horrible story as if it were a joke, and as she continued, tears started to streak past her smile. She got the part." And her future? "She's got the talent, the looks, the genes."
There is no doubt about her bloodlines. Mariska's father is Mickey Hargitay, the Hungarian-born former Mr. Universe and film actor (Lady Frankenstein; Promises, Promises) who married Mansfield in 1958. (The couple were divorced six years later.) In 1968 Mansfield, then 34, and her reputed boyfriend, Los Angeles attorney Sam Brody, were killed on their way from Biloxi, Miss., to a New Orleans TV interview after their Maserati plowed into a truck. Mariska was in the backseat with her brothers, Mickey Jr., then 8, and Zoltan, 6. Though the children survived, Mariska suffered severe head injuries and has no memory of the gruesome crash. "I blocked all that out," she says. Today her recollections of her mother consist of "weird flashes—I don't know if they're memories or ideas or things that I read or was told."
Less obscure is the pain brought on by books and movies exploiting the campy career and violent death of someone usually remembered as a Marilyn Monroe wannabe. "I don't want to spend my life defending her," says Mariska, glancing at a picture of her mother. "I just think she was really beautiful and soft." It wasn't until Mariska was 22 that she felt the full impact of her loss. "I'd wake up crying," she says. "I went through months of severe depression. I knew the pain had to be exorcised."
Her siblings helped pull her out of her despondency. Tina, 42 (Hargitay's daughter by his first wife, Mary Birge), a floral arranger; Jane Marie, 41, a stockbroker; Mickey Jr., a plant-shop owner; Zoltan, a construction worker; and Tony, 28, a producer (and half brother from Mansfield's third husband, Matt Cimber), all remain close, thanks in part to the perseverance of Mickey Sr., now 66 and a builder in Bel Air, Calif. "He taught us never to give up," says Mariska.
The same year Mansfield died, Hargitay Sr. married TWA flight attendant Ellen Siano, now 49. Ellen praises Mariska's determination in the face of the frequent dredging up of her mother's saga. "The press constantly reminds Mariska of a sad situation," she says, "and the fact that she overcomes that demonstrates tremendous resilience."
By the time tomboy Mariska got to Bel Air's Marymount High, she excelled at sports, landed leads in plays and was voted senior-class president. But she spent summers with Mickey's relatives in Iron Curtain—era Hungary, "so I sort of feel protected from that superficial Hollywood mentality," she says.
After high school Hargitay worked as a waitress and a boutique salesperson to help pay her way through UCLA drama classes. Her first break was a small part in 1983's Star 80, which led to also-ran roles in also-ran flicks like Ghoulies ('85) and Jocks ('86). In 1988 she played vixen Carly Fixx on Falcon Crest. Her career path might seem to be running parallel to her mother's, but Hargitay, unlike the flamboyant Mansfield, shuns the limelight. A big night out is bowling or playing pool with friends like Blair (L.A. Law) Underwood and fiancé Young, 32, a Michigan native. The couple met on a blind date last March. Hargitay, for grins, taunted him at dinner. "I said, 'I hate it when a guy tries to kiss a girl when she doesn't want to be kissed,' " she recalls. Suddenly, Young stood up and planted one on her. "The conversation changed at that point," she says with a smile. Young now reins in the mischievous Hargitay, a notorious practical joker, and has had to face neighbor Liam (Darkman) Neeson, who has come over to complain about Mariska's penchant for playing Madonna
The couple plan to marry in Hungary, where Mariska is still in touch with relatives, within the year. For Hargitay, starting a family is a priority. "Nothing I ever do will be as important as raising kids," she says. What kind of a mother will she be? The woman who lost her own, but gained a wonderful surrogate, doesn't laugh. "A mother," she says, "who's there."
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles