DEBBI MORGAN WAS PERFECTLY willing to jump through Hollywood’s hoops—up to a point. Despite more than 20 years spent proving her skills on television, the 46-year-old actress (best known as Angie Baxter on ABC’s All My Children) agreed to read for the role of Mozelle, the fortune-telling aunt in the recently released Eve’s Bayou. She aced the audition. “Debbi absolutely blew the competition away,” says Kasi Lemmons, the film’s director and a friend of Morgan’s. “She was sexy and tragic and funny—like Marilyn Monroe—[she had] that star quality.”
Still, the movie studio gave Morgan the big ho-hum. Only when proven box office names Angela Bassett and Alfre Woodard didn’t come through did the studio come back to her. If she would do another audition, they sniffed, the studio would consider her. Morgan did what few in Hollywood would dare do: She just said no. “It wasn’t a power trip,” says Morgan. “I thought, ‘If this part is meant for me, then I’ll have it, but I’m not going to put myself through this again.’ ” Reluctantly the studio gave in, and if Morgan were an “I-told-you-so” kind of person, she’d have every reason to gloat. The film’s generally appreciative reviewers have rhapsodized over her performance. Lemmons never doubted that Morgan would triumph in the role. She also knew success wouldn’t change the actress. “She’s not obsessed with herself and her career,” says Lemmons. “Deb-bi is about love and loving people.”
She learned it the hard way. The older of two girls born to teacher Lora and butcher George Morgan Jr., Morgan was a small child when the family moved from rural Dunn, N.C., to the South Bronx. She remembers scary forays into the night as her mother fled her drunken father. “When I’d see my mother crying, I would pray for Daddy to die,” she says. Although her father never harmed her or her sister Terry, Morgan says the emotional abuse stuck with her long after he died of leukemia in 1975. “Because I didn’t get nurturing from my dad,” she says, “I kept looking for men to give me that love.”
Her first marriage to actor Charles Weldon in the early 1980s ended unhappily, and when she met Charles S. Dutton in 1984, she says, “I really wanted it to work.” She and Dutton, a former convict who did time for manslaughter before he became a Broadway star, were married in 1989 and became known for the houses they decorated and the fun parties they threw. But in 1994, Morgan got a call from their mutual business manager urging her to seek separate counsel. Puzzled, she phoned her husband. Only then did he admit he had filed for divorce. “You’re making me suffer and this is so unfair,” she recalls thinking. But over time she has become more philosophical about both ex-husbands. “They had their own paths to follow,” she says.
She faced another test in 1994 when her sister Terry Morgan Grant was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy that threatened to cripple her for life. Morgan brought Terry, a teacher, to Los Angeles from West Virginia and took her to the best doctors she could find. Today, no longer confined to a wheelchair, Terry lives with her husband and two sons in Nashville. More recently, Morgan comforted her 28-year-old cousin Kendra Boleware Skinner in the last days of a 12-year battle with cancer. “She was like a sister to me,” says Morgan.
Grieving, yet at peace, the actress says her personal life is happier today, largely due to her new husband, photographer Donn Thompson, 38, whom she met when he shot her portrait for the June 1995 cover of Black Elegance. She was immediately attracted to him, as he was to her. “I’d always said, ‘If I photograph Debbi Morgan, Pam Grier or Sade, I’m taking one of them home,’ ” he jokes today in their rustic four-bedroom home in the Hollywood Hills. After the shoot, Morgan surprised herself by blurting out, “When are you taking me to dinner?” He responded, “For the rest of your life.” Last March they wed on a Bahamas beach.
Despite her big-screen achievement, Morgan isn’t about to turn her back on TV. “Soaps gave me a way to work at my craft and buy my home,” she says. So when ABC offered her the role of Dr. Ellen Burgess on Port Charles, daytime’s answer to ER, earlier this year, she didn’t think twice. Lemmons was shocked. “I’m trying to make you a movie star!” she protested. “Kasi, we’ll cross that bridge when I get to it,” said Morgan. “You can never make predictions.”
KAREN BRAILSFORD in Los Angeles