Playing Sweet Bird of Youth's Abandoned Lover, Cheryl Paris Draws on Her Own Unhappy Past

UPDATED 10/02/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/02/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

Most aspiring actresses wouldn't dare say no to an important movie director, but when Nicolas Roeg asked Cheryl Paris to reread her Sweet Bird of Youth audition scene with a Southern accent, she politely refused. "I told him I needed to work on the accent at home," recalls Paris, but that wasn't the real reason for her reluctance. Having arrived at the audition directly from a bitter court battle over custody of her daughter, Paris was an emotional wreck, barely able to maintain professional calm. "I couldn't do the scene again," she remembers, "or I would have started crying hysterically, and I might not have stopped for days."

Ironically, it may have been the turmoil underlying Paris's reading last April that led Roeg, best known for 1976's The Man Who Fell to Earth, to cast the inexperienced actress in his version of Tennessee Williams's drama of broken dreams and misguided passions, airing Sunday, Oct. 1 on NBC. In the film, which stars Elizabeth Taylor as an aging movie queen, Paris, 30, portrays Heavenly Finley, a small-town girl destroyed by the clashing forces of her bullying father (Rip Torn) and her deluded lover (Mark Harmon). Although the practiced accent Paris rolls off in her brief scenes may not qualify her as the next Meryl Streep, Roeg asserts, "I believe Cheryl will develop into a major star."

Should the prediction come true, it would be a welcome change for Paris, whose life has sometimes seemed as luckless as that of her character, Heavenly. When her marriage to Jim Porter, a Delta Air Lines pilot almost 20 years her senior, faltered in 1986, the couple began a wrenching three-year fight over their daughter, Katherine, now 5. On the witness stand, Paris found it humiliating to reveal details of her personal life to total strangers. "When I went home at night," she says, "I just wanted to wash myself off. Literally." Her work on Sweet Bird gave her some relief; during filming in the summer, Paris released a wellspring of emotion for the show's climactic, revelatory moments. "Nick had a raw button to push," says Paris. "All he had to say was, 'Imagine this scene is about Katie and your custody battle.' By the final takes, I was weeping hysterically." Last month, with filming on Sweet Bird Completed, Paris's long courtroom ordeal finally ended; she and Porter received joint custody of their daughter.

Paris's own childhood was no less traumatic. Born in Burley, Idaho, Paris and her five older brothers were raised in California by their mother, who divorced their father when Cheryl was 4. Struggling to support the family as a supermarket checker, "She worked every day, including Christmas and Thanksgiving," says Paris. When Cheryl was 13, her mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. "Her body was eroding right in front of me," she remembers. "Every day I would call from school to make sure she was still alive."

When her mother died a year and a half later, Cheryl lived first with her stepfather, then with an uncle who treated her like a maid ("I felt like Cinderella with a broom," she says) and then in Florida with her brother Jack, who protested when she started dating Porter, the father of one of her friends. Cheryl moved in with Porter and began waiting on tables in a Miami bar, bringing home so much money that she decided to drop out of college. One night, a free-lance photographer asked to take her picture for Playboy. She refused to pose in the nude but sat for some portraits, which he sent to the Elite modeling agency in New York City.

Those photos led Paris to an exclusive Elite contract in 1981, and after marrying Porter she moved to Manhattan and began earning $2,000 a week posing for fashion magazines and catalogs. "I was never a supermodel," she says. "They said I could have been if I'd cut my hair, but I would have felt too much like a boy." Paris loved the work, but the glamour began to wear thin, especially after a modeling trip to Europe. "I had to stay with this guy," says Paris. "Every opportunity he would get, he would accost me. One night, I woke up, and he was in my room, pulling down my blanket and trying to kiss me." Not long after the incident, Paris moved back to Florida, quit modeling and filled her days with karate and drama lessons.

Bored with her leisure life, Paris and her husband moved to L. A. in 1983 so she could try acting. She landed a guest spot on T.J. Hooker, but pregnancy halted her career plans. Shortly after Katie was born in 1984, Paris's home life began to fall apart. Porter broke his knee during a skiing accident and, due to alleged medical negligence (he is currently suing the doctor), couldn't walk or work for 18 months. The stress of his disability ruptured their marriage. "Jim had to blame someone and he picked me," says Paris.

Although they tried counseling, eventually the rift grew so deep that Porter filed for divorce. "The whole divorce really strung Cheryl out," says her best friend and aspiring actress, Brynja McGrady. "She didn't know from one minute to the next whether she was going to be a single mother or whether she was going to lose her child."

The custody battle behind them, Katie spends 15 days a month with Cheryl in a four-bedroom Northridge, Calif., house, which they share with two roommates. While she puts her life back in order—making daily rounds of auditions, quitting smoking and providing a stable home for her child—Paris is in no hurry to hook up with someone new. "I never want to experience that pain and sadness that I did while divorcing Jim," says Paris. "Next time I get married, I want it to be for the rest of my life."

—Jeannie Park, Kevin Koffler in Los Angeles

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