Debbie Reynolds needs help. Guest-starring as the mother of Grace (Debra Messing) on the hit sitcom Will & Grace, Reynolds is struggling to wrap her voice around Van Morrison's '70s smash "Gloria," a song, Reynolds admits, she has never heard. "Belt it out, Debbie! Make it big! Big!" urges actress Shelley Morrison. "I don't want to make it too broad," demurs Reynolds. "On this show," Morrison is quick to assure her, "nothing is ever too broad."
And few can project those larger-than-life moments as exuberantly as Morrison. Playing Rosario, the surly Salvadoran maid who bilingually bickers with her gin-soaked socialite boss (Megan Mullally) and swaps loving snipes with her gay, green-card-bestowing ex-husband (Sean Hayes), Morrison, 64, has to play big to keep up with this dysfunctional crew. "Everyone on this show is very young," says Reynolds, 68, who worked with Morrison on the 1967 film Divorce American Style. "So for Shelley to come in and make her character soar is testimony to what a terrific actress she is. We both fit in, maybe because of our work ethic."
That survivor's work ethic has helped Morrison cope with more than just the highs and lows of a nearly 40-year career. In 1988 she had a malignant tumor removed from her left breast. Two years later another tumor was found in the same breast, and a second lumpectomy performed. But in 1998, when the cancer recurred, she opted for a full mastectomy. "It was strange, that feeling after surgery," says Morrison. "You're lopsided, for one thing. Also I'm fairly ample, so the prosthetic is very heavy. But I didn't have that long an adjustment period, emotionally or physically. It really is mind over matter."
Still, her ordeal wasn't over. Last fall Morrison, who quit smoking 15 years ago, was diagnosed with lung cancer (unrelated to her breast cancer) and had the upper third of her right lung removed. Undeterred, she returned to the Will & Grace set eight days later. "She has a deep well of strength," says Walter Dominguez, 53, Morrison's husband of 27 years and a former film producer who is now a spiritual healer (the couple embraced Native American culture in the early '60s and follow its spiritual traditions). "She has a healing capacity that allows her to overcome all this."
Overcoming adversity is nothing new to Morrison, the only daughter of Sephardic Jewish parents—clothing manufacturer Maurice (pronounced Morris, which inspired her stage name) Mitrani and homemaker Hortense. Rachel—or "Shelley," as her parents nicknamed her—grew up in a Bronx tenement until Maurice (who died in 1967,14 years before his wife) moved the family to L.A. when Shelley was 10. After studying drama for three years at Los Angeles City College, Morrison appeared on such series as The Farmer's Daughter and, most notably, The Flying Nun, as Sister Sixto opposite Sally Field's Sister Bertrille from 1967 to 1970. "Shelley always made me laugh," recalls Field. "We spent three years dealing with those outfits. You couldn't fit into a bathroom stall because of the hat! We couldn't take it off because it took too long to get on our heads again." Says Morrison: "I figured out how to slide in sideways, but if your head tipped just a little, you were stuck again."
Thankfully, no cumbersome props were required by her more recent acting gigs, such as the early '90s TV series Sisters (again playing a Hispanic maid) and films like 1997's Fools Rush In. But divine intervention might have played a part in her latest casting. In March 1999 Morrison was considering retirement when she consulted a Native American elder, who advised her to think about what she really wanted. "I said to myself, 'I want to do healing comedy,' " Morrison says. " 'Something with social value, and it would be just fine to be fifth banana.' " The next day she was called to audition for Will & Grace. The first time the cast met Morrison, Mullally remembers thinking, " 'There she is. Rosario in flesh and blood.' She was perfect. Now I don't think anyone can imagine the show without her."
Especially not the neighbors in the three-story L.A. apartment house where Morrison's father moved the family 54 years ago. Morrison, who has lived there ever since and who inherited the four-unit complex in 1981, when her mother died, shares a three-bedroom apartment with Dominguez and their mixed breeds Charlie and Katie. "The other day I was walking the dogs when a woman rushed up to me and shouted, 'If you're not on the show, I don't watch it!' " says Morrison. "So here I am, bent over picking up dog poop. I just stood there with my Ziploc bag and smiled. What could I say but, 'Well, thank you.' "
Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles
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