As the costar of several high-profile films in the 1980s, actress Jessica Harper is used to strangers approaching to ask, “Aren’t you…?” or “Didn’t you…?” So when a grandmotherly type confronted her in L.A. recently, Harper expected to hear something about My Favorite Year or Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, movies in which she had major roles. But no. “I have to tell you,” the woman said, “I just love your CD.”
Lots of grannies and mommies already know what others are finding out: Harper, 49, once a wide-eyed ingenue, has morphed into a latter-day Raffi, writing and recording award-winning children’s music. So far she has sold 50,000 copies—very respectable for the genre—of four CDs and earned good reviews from critics and some celebrity moms. “Jessica Harper’s music is joyful, hilarious and fresh,” says Meryl Streep. “Fresh as in new, and fresh as in the way my mother meant it—cheeky, sassy and fun.” Bette Midler has recorded two of Harper’s songs, “Soda and a Souvenir” and “One More Round.”
In the ’80s, Harper hadn’t even thought about making music. After more than a decade of big-screen features, including Pennies from Heaven with Steve Martin, she landed a plum part as Garry Shandling’s girlfriend on his Showtime sitcom. “I didn’t get that ‘Are you ready to be a star?’ thing that I see people going through now,” Harper says of the decade. “But things went well for me.”
Well enough, in fact, that Harper never gave much thought to settling down. Enter Tom Rothman, now president of 20th Century Fox’s film production division. Just past his teens, he had gone to the movies with his brother to see Brian De Palma’s camp-rock musical Phantom of the Paradise, starring Harper. “I remember distinctly seeing this overhead shot of this beautiful girl,” recalls Rothman, who says the moment helped spark his passion for movies.
When he finally met Harper in the mid-’80s, Rothman was still smitten. They married in 1989. “We’d crossed paths at this place in life where we both wanted the same things,” says Rothman. The most important thing: a family. “It wasn’t until late in life that I even wanted to be a mom,” says Harper.
With the birth of daughters Elizabeth, now 9, and Nora, 8, she found it difficult to keep acting full-time. “My priorities totally flip-flopped,” says Harper, who has settled nicely into her soccer mom role in the Hollywood Hills. “Getting in front of a camera seemed infinitely less important.” Writing songs wasn’t a priority either; her desire grew gradually, born of frustration. “I didn’t like the kids’ music I was hearing,” says Harper. “It was icky and condescending.”
It was nothing like the witty tunes her homemaker mother, Eleanor, 79—father Paul, 78, was an advertising executive—sang to her six children in their Chicago home. “My mother was always making up little songs for us,” says Harper. And brother Sam, 42, remembers Jessica coining her own ditties that “weren’t exactly appropriate family material.” That racy bent helped Harper get an early role on Broadway in the musical Hair. “If you took your clothes off, you got an extra $2.50 a night,” recalls Harper. “That was an enormous amount of money at the time, so what can I say? I’ve got my price.”
Although Harper still acts occasionally—most recently in an episode of Ally McBeal—she’s happy with her new gig. “I have to say I love it more than acting at this time in my life,” she says, “because of the way my children respond to it.” One response is making giggly vocal appearances on all her CDs. “I think they may make demands for credit,” says Harper. “Then it’ll be agents…and who knows?”
Craig Tomashoff in Los Angeles