A 40-foot swimming pool is the emblem of Joanna Cassidy’s tenacity. She bought it—and the three-bedroom Brentwood house alongside it—right after she was made a regular on the 240-Robert ABC series in 1979. When the show was canceled four months later, friends urged Joanna to sell the house. Instead, she toughed it out. Now, after a series of roles in B movies (The Outfit, Night Games) and guest spots on innumerable series, Cassidy, 38, has swum to safety. As the apex of the Nick Nolte-Gene Hackman triangle in Under Fire, she is a leading prospect for an Oscar nomination. Even better, her role as Jo-Jo, Dabney Coleman’s director, on the NBC hit comedy Buffalo Bill, takes the worry out of house payments. “I’m over the hump,” she says. “But,” she adds half-seriously, “I’m not a household word. That’s still on the horizon.”
A little controversy doesn’t hurt, and for Cassidy, that’s on the immediate horizon. In a two-part Buffalo Bill episode that begins this week, Jo-Jo, pregnant by Bill (Coleman), gets an abortion. For a sitcom, that’s a volatile topic. “A certain amount of levity comes through, but there’s no loss of seriousness involved,” Coleman insists. “It was handled with dignity.” Cassidy says that she didn’t find the episodes especially difficult to play. “I wasn’t affected because I have two children and I’ve never had to face that particular situation,” she says. “I don’t mean to be trite about abortion, but I do feel it’s a woman’s body, and I don’t think anyone should take away her choice of having or not having a child.”
Bringing up her own children has been a key concern in Cassidy’s life. “There’s a lot of weight on the shoulders of a single parent, and that’s taken a lot of energy away from me,” she says. “It was always in the back of my mind that I had to do it, and I couldn’t count on anybody. There was no one around to pay for me to get through life.” A similar gritty independence marks most of the characters she has played. As Claire, the radio-news reporter in Nicaragua in Under Fire, Joanna imagined that she was talking to her own daughter when Claire was making cassette tapes to send to her teenager at home. Her tone is realistically tough. “I’m a mother lion when it comes to protecting my children,” she says.
Joanna was born Joanne Virginia Caskey, the younger daughter of a legal investigator father and a painter mother. A teenage nonconformist in middle-class Haddonfield, N.J., she went off to Syracuse University, and in 1964, after an out-of-character stint as freshman homecoming queen, dropped out to marry a young doctor. “One of the nicest things he did for me was give me my name,” she says. “He told me I was a ‘Cassidy’ to him. I think he meant it as in ‘Hopalong.’ ” He also fathered her children: Naomi, now 18, and Daniel, 12. “I don’t think either one of us had a concept of what marriage should be in terms of support,” Joanna reflects. “We did have some funny times, but not too many loving ones.”
When her husband entered the Army, Joanna followed him to Columbia, S.C. “I didn’t handle being an Army wife well,” she admits. “I was watching television one day. A girl came on talking about bright teeth and I thought I could do that.” She was right. Bluffing her way into a modeling agency, she was soon hired as a ramp model in Washington. “You could always leave it to me to put a dress on backwards,” she recalls. “Once I fell off the stage.” The family resettled in San Francisco, where Joanna’s modeling career continued to flourish. At the same time her marriage was withering. In 1973 she moved to L.A. with the children. Her divorce became final in 1974—the year after she won her first movie role, a small part in the Walter Matthau picture The Laughing Policeman.
In an up-and-down career, Cassidy has scrambled for small parts in movies and guest spots on TV shows. Between the short-lived 240-Robert and Buffalo Bill, her longest tour was five episodes of Falcon Crest as Katherine Demery, who was in love with Cole, played by Billy Moses. While working on that show, she auditioned for Under Fire and won her first starring film role. Her previous movie performances have been brief—although her scantily clad role in Blade Runner was memorable, especially for Joanna, since it inaugurated her two-year romance with director Ridley Scott. “It was the best experience I’ve ever had making a movie,” she says.
With the luxury of steady work and a growing reputation, Cassidy is looking to branch out. She would like to have a role in which she does not play a professional—a temptress would be nice. And she would like a little personal diversification as well. “It’s been a funny life for me,” she says. “Sometimes I feel I haven’t done a lot of living. Now I can relax, dabble and fill in the areas of my life that I want to fill in.”