Last month actress Jennifer Grey made the kind of headlines she would never have sought. While she was sightseeing in Ireland with her boyfriend, actor Matthew Broderick, their rental car collided with another automobile, killing two passengers in the other car and leaving Broderick with a broken leg. Two weeks later she made news in a more felicitous fashion, winning rave reviews for her first starring role, in the summer’s heavy-breathing, period-piece hit, Dirty Dancing. Grey, daughter of Joel Grey, who won an Oscar for Cabaret, plays a ’60s teen who comes of age after falling in love with a sexy dance instructor. She has emerged as a major young talent.
It was a long time coming. Over the past six years, Jennifer has had small teen parts in minor flicks like Reckless and American Flyers but nothing to attract much critical notice until she played Matthew Broderick’s bratty kid sister in last year’s summer hit Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Landing the part of Baby in Dirty Dancing was no waltz. At 27, Grey is 10 years older than Baby, and she had to audition to prove she could dance. She let everything out in her five-minute tryout. “I pretended it was the ’70s and I was at Studio 54 making a commotion,” says Jennifer. That she did. “Jennifer really jumped into this stuff,” says her co-star, Patrick Swayze. “She came out with a sensuality in her dancing that staggered everybody.”
Small surprise. Showbiz élan is part of her heritage. Jennifer is a third-generation entertainer whose grandfather was Mickey Katz, a borscht belt comedian who performed parodies of popular songs in the vein of his Schlepping My Baby Back Home; her mother is onetime Broadway actress Jo Wilder. Jennifer grew up in Manhattan and Los Angeles, transferring from one school to another when her father made coast-to-coast career moves.
Jennifer and her brother Jimmy were raised in what she calls a lebedik household. That’s Yiddish for “wild and crazy.” But there were restrictions: For one thing, her parents wouldn’t let her act, the one thing she most wanted to do. “My father wanted to make sure we had as normal a life as possible as children,” she says. “He wanted me to know who I was before I got my sense of worth from perfect strangers who were casting things.”
In her rebellious high school phase, Grey wore platform shoes, blow-dried her curly hair straight and gobbed on pounds of makeup. “I didn’t like my looks,” she says. “I wasn’t Miss Beautiful, that’s for sure. The only thing I had over everybody was that I was most likely to tan.” Restless and dissatisfied, she started dating guys her dad didn’t care for. “I was the classic case,” she says. “The Jewish girl brought up in an upper-middle-class family who went for everything I’d never seen before. I liked those Saturday Night Fever Italian street-type guys from Brooklyn.”
After graduating in 1978, Grey enrolled at Manhattan’s Neighborhood Playhouse for two years of training as an actress. While waiting for roles, she supported herself waitressing, with unsanitary consequences. “I was fired from my last job when I dropped some record producer’s ham hocks on the floor,” she says. Then came Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. She and Broderick started dating in semi-secrecy during the filming, but their cover was blown by the car crash in Ireland. “When you’re in a relationship you really care about, you want to protect it and not talk about it,” says Grey, who cut off promotion for Dirty Dancing to be with the 25-year-old Broderick while he recuperated. “I’m nuts for him, and he’s my favorite thing to talk about in real life, but when feelings for someone are put in print, it trivializes them,” she says. “Saying I’m madly in love with him looks so little compared to how it really is.” The two share a Manhattan apartment where, Grey is embarrassed to admit, her favorite pastime is cleaning the house. “It’s one of the few things in life you can control,” she explains.
Unlike, say, her career. She’s tired of teen roles. “It’s getting tougher and tougher to play them,” she says. “I just don’t get that new hot music. I don’t know anything about all these groups like U2.” Her greatest hope for Dirty Dancing is that it might lead to a musical revival of sorts. “If this movie would bring back partner dancing, I’d be very happy,” she declares. “It’s so romantic.” And what might the movie do for her? Grey is sanguine. “I’ve gotten close to big parts for years [one was the daughter in Down and Out in Beverly Hills] and I’ve lost them. But it’s been okay. My father taught me you have to believe in yourself and run on your own track.” Henceforth, on the evidence of Dirty Dancing, she can look forward to some zealous pursuit by producers.