Try to forget her Bette Midler built. Bernadette Peters is just a prim, apolitical kid from New York’s Ozone Park, lately caught in the fell hands of two kinkily creative producers. Mel Brooks billed her as that “bundle of lust,” cabaret seductress Vilma Kaplan, in his Silent Movie. Norman Lear couldn’t resist casting Peters as the radical photojournalist of his latest satirical sitcom, All’s Fair on CBS.
Charlie’s her name in the series and she’s paired amorously with a right-wing columnist (Richard Crenna) twice her age. D.C.-set, the prime-time show gets off the cheekiest political zingers this side of Chevy Chase (the comic, not the suburb). “Charlie manages to stay feminine and not threatening to men, which is healthy on a TV show,” says Peters. “Ours is not a yelling show, like a lot of women’s shows.” As a result, All’s Fair is unquestionably the season’s most sophisticated newcomer—which is another way of saying that it may be in rating jeopardy with the population at large.
That threat doesn’t trouble Bernadette at 28. Off-camera she’s scared, gentle and can easily empathize with that precursor female capital photographer, Jackie Bouvier. Though her role apotheosizes liberation, it took all of Bernadette’s present success and one of her friends in the movement to raise her awareness of “how liberated I really am.” Success means less to her than things “having to do with karma,” such as vegetarianism and her own variation on non-TM meditation.
From her Sicilian dad, Peter Lazzara, who ran a bread route, Bernadette adapted her stage surname. By age 5, she was a regular on TV’s Horn & Hardart Children’s Hour, and she made her network debut six months later, winning $800 on Name That Tune. At 11, she was in the stage click Most Happy Fella. After graduating from a professional school, Peters scored on the boards for eight years (earning two Tony nominations) in musicals like Curley McDimple, George M!, Dames at Sea and Mack & Mabel.
Finally, in 1973, she ventured West—and did little more than perfectionist movie cameos in The Longest Yard and W. C. Fields and Me. “I was being touted for everything in town, this TV show, that movie,” she recalls. “None of them ever happened. Employers were going for the standard-looking girls.” In fact, until All’s Fair, Bernadette credits her survival to Carol Burnett and Merv Griffin, who “had me on when no one else wanted me.” There was also Hollywood Squares. “I’m a semi-regular, which means I don’t have my own box like Rose Marie and Paul Lynde,” explains Bernadette. For all that show’s career-building potential, she worries now that “they’re just starting to zero in on me with the body questions. They ask me about bust measurements—they’re so tacky.” Bernadette has also assembled a nightclub act and a current record (Forever Young, Forever Free, the title song for an upcoming movie).
Peters lives with her poodle, Rocco, in a two-bedroom apartment above Sunset Strip. It dates back to the 1930s. Bernadette wears bonnets to keep the sun off her delicate pale skin and has yet to dip in the building’s pool—”I never learned how to swim”—but otherwise feels at home. “People can lose their dignity in the pressures of New York,” she says. “I love California,” especially “driving anywhere I want to go.” That she’s allowed to bomb around the freeways at all is indicative of Peters’ perseverance: she failed her driving test the first three times.
Bernadette socializes with people who are “all in the business, but nobody famous.” One pal who doesn’t quite fit that description is Rod McKuen, with whom she makes it to an occassional premiere. Another frequent escort, composer Lee Holdridge (who will arrange and produce her first album), is reported to be her most serious man. After nearly a quarter century, she is in the entertainment business to stay. A decade ago, she confides, “I took an aptitude test. I scored too low in English and my math was zero. They said I really couldn’t do anything else.” But “I want to do it all,” she now resolves. “Just point me in a direction I want to go, and I’m gone.”