YOU KNOW YOU'VE HAD A Turbulent year when the least dramatic thing you did was to appear in a blockbuster movie about tornadoes. Take it from Jami Gertz, who began 1995 thinking she would spend the next few months taking care of her newborn, Nicholas, and then-3-year-old son, Oliver. Almost by accident, the actress promptly landed a key part in Twister, as the nervous therapist who comes between stars Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton. After an arduous four-month shoot in Oklahoma, with her sons and her mother sharing her house on location, Gertz returned to L.A. and the good life with her husband, 35-year-old stock investor Tony Ressler. Or so she thought until, two weeks after her return, she suddenly faced the prospect of losing him to a brain tumor. "You just become very numb, you don't believe it," says Gertz, 30. "But it helps you prioritize your life so quickly."
Gertz can smile now as she looks back on the stretch that began in early 1995 when she got a call from her agent about Twister. Gertz's credits include the CBS sitcom Square Pegs and movies such as 1987's Less Than Zero. But because she was concentrating on being a mother, she hadn't auditioned for a feature film in four years. "I thought, I'll just go audition to see what it's like again." Squeezed into a pair of stretch-front maternity jeans—she had given birth just two weeks before—Gertz told the casting director she was wasting her time. "I'm not going to Oklahoma for four months," she swore. "I just had a baby." But director Jan De Bont had a different idea and picked her, he says, because she was funny. "She made me laugh so much," De Bont says. "I thought she would be an incredible addition to the movie." Says Gertz: "Cut to me in Oklahoma with the cows and the wheat on the Great Plains."
Her initial problem, though, wasn't cattle or crops; it was fiddleback spiders. The venomous creatures got into her house, forcing a complete fumigation by exterminators. Twice. Then, one month into the shooting, the cinematographer had a falling-out with De Bont and quit, taking his 30-person staff. Gertz, says the director, helped lighten the mood on the set. "Jami was telling jokes, helping keep spirits up," recalls De Bont. "She's a mom, so she was mothering everybody."
Gertz found herself on a more vital mothering mission on the morning of Sept. 1. Awakened by a loud crash in the bathroom of her Los Angeles house, she saw her husband collapsed in a chair, writhing in the throes of a seizure. Gertz felt herself panicking but managed to dial 911 and pull her 185-pound husband onto the floor. "I was the only one there who could help him," she says. "I gained strength from that." After tests were taken, the doctors decided Ressler had a tumor in the left frontal lobe of his brain, one that could only be removed with risky surgery. Hearing the diagnosis, Gertz remembers thinking, "What did I do to get God's wrath?"
Until that point, Gertz's life had been largely wrath-free. Raised in Glenview, Ill., a tony suburb of Chicago, Jami was the second of three children of contractor Walter Gertz and his homemaker wife, Sharon. After a turn as Dorothy in a fifth-grade production of The Wizard of Oz, Gertz worked her way up from local commercials to small TV and movie roles before landing Square Pegs in 1982. Pegs bit the dust after one season, but Gertz had roles on other shows and films, including The Lost Boys (1987). She married Ressler, whom she had met at a party in 1986, and six years later was happy to start a family. "I'd been working since I was 16," she says. "It-was nice to have a home. I was aching for it."
That ache turned to fear last September when Gertz realized she might lose her husband. But during surgery doctors discovered that what they had assumed was a brain tumor was actually a less dangerous cyst, which they removed without incident. Receiving the good news, Gertz and her family erupted. "You never saw happier people in your life," Gertz says of the waiting-room scene. "Cheers, screaming and yelling." Ressler, who still takes antiseizure medication, was pretty pleased too. "A cyst does not kill you," he says. "I'm fine."
Ressler is back to work now, and the couple are building themselves a five-bedroom house in Los Angeles. "I have parents who love me, and I married a great guy," Gertz says. "I've had a charmed life." Standing in the eye of Twister, the future couldn't be brighter.
TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles
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