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No Shrinking Violet

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A reluctant stand-up cultivates a gift for gardening

CASSANDRA DANZ, THE TV GARDENING expert known as Mrs. Greenthumbs, was being rudely uprooted. Talk show diva Rosie O’Donnell burst onto the set of Live with Regis & Kathie Lee, where the fortysomething Danz dispenses earthy advice about growing perkier perennials and making compost out of coffee grounds, and grabbed her arm. “Greenie, you’re mine!,” bellowed O’Donnell, leading Danz offstage.

An hour later, Regis stormed the Rosie O’Donnell Show, handcuffed himself to Danz and dragged her back off the set. “Regis kept me in those handcuffs all the way back to the show,” says Danz.

Of course it was a publicity stunt, but it emphasized a point: Green-thumbs, a Live regular, is a prime property. “The audience loves her,” says Live executive producer Michael Gelman, who first booked Danz, a former stand-up comic, two years ago after catching her 1994 one-woman show Mrs. Greenthumbs Plows Ahead. “She’s always game for a sight gag,” says Gelman, “and she’s always there with a fast comeback.”

Still, just behind the humor is a passion for humus. “Life,” says Danz, “is something not only to be savored but to be kissed madly on the mouth. Horticulturally, it’s the same thing. If you’re going to do a garden, you don’t just want to garden nice. You want a drop-dead gorgeous garden.”

As a gardener, Danz is a late bloomer. The Brooklyn-born daughter of William, an artist, and Marilyn, a housewife, Cassandra began acting at North Valley Stream (N.Y.) High School and majored in drama at Long Island University. While in college she met Barry Manilow, who was a neighbor of her older brother’s. “Barry and I used to do songs together,” Danz says. On his advice, she got a part-time job waiting tables at a comedy club and began doing stand-up on the side. She later tried the same combo at New York City’s Catch a Rising Star. “I was so slow that people would never get to their two-drink minimum,” she says. “The owner said, ‘Stick to comedy.’ ”

She took the advice, but it wasn’t easy. Doing stand-up, “I was scared all the time,” says Danz. And homesick. Hired by Chicago’s Second City company in 1974, she lasted just six months because the newlywed Danz missed her husband, Walter (now 51, he’s a commuter railroad exec), back in Manhattan. In 1984, the couple and their son, Samuel, now 18, moved to a Victorian house in Hudson County, N.Y. Her exploits trying to make her garden grow there (“The side of the house where I wanted to put my garden was covered with Japanese bamboo. It competed well with native plants—it killed them”) planted the seed for Mrs. Greenthumbs. The character was introduced in 1989, during a tour of the High-Heeled Women, a cabaret troupe Danz helped found 12 years earlier. A literary agent caught the act and signed her to write Mrs. Greenthumbs: How I Turned a Boring Yard into a Glorious Garden and How You Can, Too.

The 1993 book earned Danz a job as a columnist for Country Living Gardener magazine and has made her a star on the flower-show circuit. Still, Danz keeps her priorities straight. “The comedy always comes first,” she says, shortly before picking up an undulating bag of worms for her compost segment. “I threw out dignity a looong time ago.”

MICHAEL A. LIPTON

ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABRERA in New York City