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Mother Knows Best

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ON THIS UNUSUALLY SUNNY LATE AFTERNOON in Portland, Oreg., Corbin Bernsen—Arnie Becker of NBC’s L.A. Law—swigs Evian water while waiting to shoot his next scene in the feature film Frozen Assets, scheduled for release next spring. Sitting nearby, his mother, The Young and the Restless veteran Jeanne Cooper, who has a supporting part in the movie, notices his beverage. “Corb, where did you get that?” she asks.

“I have some more in my trailer,” he replies. “Do you want some?”

“Yes,” answers Mom. “I like that idea. You going to get me my water!”

Bernsen, though, dispatches a crew member to fetch the bottle.

Not that Bernsen, 37, doesn’t pay proper filial respect. Television’s smarmiest solicitor is rather solicitous toward his 62-year-old mom, who has played the four-times married, reformed alcoholic Katherine Chancellor for 18 years on Y&R. (Cooper too is a recovering alcoholic but was married only once, to producer Harry Bernsen, whom she divorced in 1980.) “If you want to add up the bank accounts of years spent in the business, hers far exceed mine,” Bernsen says. “It’s time for people to take notice of her.”

To that end, Bernsen suggested Cooper for the role of his overprotective mom in Frozen Assets. (She was nominated for an Emmy when she played his domineering mother in a 1986 episode of L.A. Law.) Bernsen plays a corporate climber who moves from L.A. to Oregon to run a bank—which, to his surprise, turns out to be a sperm bank (Frozen Assets—get it?). Shelley (Cheers) Long costars as a starchy biogeneticist, and—again on Corbin’s recommendation—Bernsen brother Collin (Mr. Destiny), 33, plays a newlywed who refuses to have sex with his wife while he fortifies himself for a sperm-count competition.

In one of today’s scenes, Cooper’s excitable matron sees a long line of men waiting outside the bank, assumes there is a run on the institution and frantically begs them not to withdraw their savings. “Know your lines?” Corbin teases just before she goes in front of the camera. Old pro Cooper satisfies director George (The Man from Snowy River) Miller in only a couple of takes.

The two Bernsen boys (third sibling Caren, 31, owns an L.A. gift business) credit their mother with giving them a running start in Hollywood. Recalls Collin: “She said, ‘If you’re going to throw a baseball, throw it hard. Same thing in acting. If you’re going to hit someone, make it look real.’ ” Cooper claims she never pushed either child into acting. While raising them in Beverly Hills, she says, she encouraged their independence by insisting that one day a week they call her by her name, Wilma Jeanne. Every now and then, they still do.

Cooper lives alone, a one-minute drive away from the Hollywood Hills house Corbin shares with wife Amanda (The Flash) Pays and their son, Oliver, 2. Collin and his wife, Cheryl Horton, and son Weston, l, are also nearby. (Their second child is due this month.) Though the grandchildren come over often to splash in her pool, “I told my kids I’m not the unofficial baby-sitter,” Cooper says.

But unofficial adviser—well, what’s a mother for? She says that Corbin, who has at times railed against and retreated from the media for perceived slights, “needs to become more thick-skinned so he isn’t wounded as quickly. This whole thing about being private—if you’re too private, you won’t be in this business long.”

On the set, mother and son cope quite differently with the demands of celebrity. When Bernsen is asked for his autograph, he balks, complaining that if he grants one such request, he’ll have to grant them all. Finally he relents and scribbles his name.

Meanwhile a fan cautiously approaches his mom. “Hi, dear, how are you?” Cooper responds warmly, signing the profferred slip of paper and giving the woman a hug. As more admirers step up, she chats with each one and even follows one man to his truck to call his father, a fervent Cooper fan. When a publicist suggests she retreat to her trailer, Cooper shakes her head. Then, as she has for 18 years, she graciously turns her attention to her audience.