IF ANYONE WAS DOZING OFF AT THE END of a certain Tonight Show late last month, Kathy Najimy surely woke them up. As she breezed on, Jay Leno was truly thrown by her opening compliment: "You're one of the only talk show hosts who isn't racist, sexist, homophobic and doesn't think with your penis.""
Najimy, 35, is used to leaving them speechless. With a manic mug and pinball eyes, she has earned her comedic stripes in small turns in Soapdish (costume designer), The Fisher King (video store customer) and This Is My Life (stand-up comic). Now habit-clad as a relentlessly perky nun in the new new Sister Act, she may have broken out of bit parts forever by stealing scenes from star Whoopi Goldberg. "A comic miracle worker," one critic labeled her. Goldberg is also impressed. "I'm building a temple for her," she says. "That's how much I adore her."
Najimy had to pray over her character, a nun in the convent where lounge singer Goldberg hides out alter witnessing a mob rubout. Told to make her Sister Mary Patrick "cheerful," she was stymied until she caught chirpy Mary Hart on Entertainment Tonight. "I went, "Oh, my God! That's her!' Before I had to say a line, I would say out loud, 'I love everything!' "
Although the film was plagued by Whoopi's unhappiness with Disney and the constantly rewritten script, Najimy remembers a happier set. "I had the time of my life," she says. Filming an episode in which the nuns are transported to Reno must have been as funny off screen as on. Recalls director Emile Ardolino: "Every time I yelled, 'Cut,' I'd see her in full habit playing blackjack."
Grabbing the spotlight is nothing new to Najimy, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, who was repeatedly told by her father, Fred, a butcher, and her mother, Samia, that she was "the smartest, loveliest, most creative thing that ever walked the earth." In San Diego, where she grew up with her brother and two sisters, garage productions were inevitable. "Kathy was a real ham," says Samia. but the theatrics helped her hold her own. "When you're not thin and blond," says Najimy, "you come up with a personality real quick."
Being funny also helped her cope with troubles at home. "My dad gambled a lot," she says. "He was often unhappy, and he and my mom didn't get along." Her father died in a freak accident when Kathy was 14. While being rushed to the hospital after suffering a heart attack, he was killed when the ambulance was hit by a car. Najimy misses him to this day. "He had a big love for life," she says.
After graduating from Crawford High School in 1975 and majoring in theater at San Diego State, Najimy went to work in local productions, supporting herself as a telephone operator and by delivering singing telegrams. Once, dressed as a rabbit, she sang a musical missive from herself to her idol, an amused Bette Midler, after a concert. "Then I hopped out of the room and passed out," she says. (Ah, fate: Sister Act was to be a Midler vehicle, but Bette declined. Now Kathy is set to star with Midler in a fantasy adventure about witches.)
In 1982, Najimy met feminist comic Maureen Gaffney. Together they conceived and starred in The Kathy & Mo Show, a blitzkrieg of cutting-edge skits that opened in San Diego and eventually enjoyed an 18-month off-Broadway run as well as an HBO special. When pianist and composer John Boswell caught the show and met Kathy afterward, it was love at first sight. "I love teeth, and he has the perfect teeth of life," says Kathy, somewhat enigmatically. Three years ago they moved into a railroad flat in Manhattan's-theater district. "Kathy's one of the smartest people I know and the freest spirit," says Boswell, 32. "And she's a hoot."
As Kathy contemplates the horizon, which includes writing movies, she says she's grateful for a look that won't get lost in the Hollywood shuffle. Heavy since fourth grade, she considers dieting a waste of time. "I look at these powerful women in Hollywood consumed with weight," says Kathy. "This is who I am." She proves it while lunching with an interviewer in the Manhattan celebrity restaurant Orso. Pulling open her blouse, Najimy flashes ample cleavage. "Watch out, Sharon," she warns the absent Sharon Stone. "I'm on my way, babe!"
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