Just three short years ago, actress Carol Potter was living a life that any hardworking actress might envy. She was happily married to screenwriter Spencer (Hide in Plain Sight, War Party) Eastman, had moved into a Hollywood Hills “starter mansion” and was intensely enjoying motherhood with infant son Christopher. Eastman had two movies in production, and Potter was working in commercials and on the stage. But almost overnight her busy, happy existence unraveled. In October 1987, Eastman, 47 years old and a former pack-a-day smoker, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He died six months later, leaving Potter to raise their child alone. She developed a case of what seemed at the time to be insurmountable grief that paralyzed her career and froze her emotional growth.
Such circumstances might have overwhelmed a less assured and energetic character. But with courage, a religious conviction and hours of hard emotional work, Potter has recovered from the blows and is once again flourishing. On the job front, she stars in Fox’s Thursday night family drama Beverly Hills, 902 JO as Cindy Walsh, the mother of a Minneapolis family relocated to the unsettling, glitzy sophistication of Southern California. On the home front, after a year’s happy and quiet courtship, she recently married actor Jeffrey Josephson, 40, a self-styled “thug of the week” who has played representatives of that genre on Hill Street Blues, Hunter and L.A. Law.
On a bright afternoon in her peach-colored Brentwood living room, the 42-year-old Potter cuddles Christopher in one arm, sips herbal tea and trains her blue-gray eyes on the past without blinking—or flinching. “I’ve experienced what a lot of people don’t until they’re in their 60s or 70s,” she says. “In one year I experienced the birth of my son and the death of my husband—my first birth and my first death. It’s given me such a sense of being a full-fledged human being.”
From an early age Potter was captivated by the human drama. Growing up the youngest of three children in Tenafly, N., she was enchanted with acting and encouraged by her mother, Catharine, and her psychiatrist father, Harry, who took her to Broadway shows whenever possible. She loved going to the movies. “My friends and I would all come home afterwards,” she recalls, “and play out all the parts in the film. We all wanted to be Pollyanna or Shirley Temple.” As a senior at Dana Hall, a Wellesley, Mass., boarding school, Potter starred in productions of Peter Pan and The King and I but went on to Radcliffe, where she majored in psychology, not drama. “I didn’t want to be too narrow-minded,” says Potter of her educational choice. “My personal life has always been as important to me as my career.”
Potter put in her time apprenticing as an actress. She waitressed in New York City, took acting lessons and worked in summer stock, off and on Broadway and in TV ads, including a campaign for PEOPLE. She went to Los Angeles in 1981 to play Maggie in the short-lived ABC series Today’s F. When the show faded, she returned to commercials and stage work and to the Episcopal Church. Not unlike her wary, somewhat resentful character on Beverly Hills, Potter says, “Here I was in this new place, and I got very depressed. I decided I really needed a relationship with God, so I could lay some of this stuff at his feet and deal with people on a more normal level.”
She got the chance in July 1985, when she met Spencer Eastman at a party in the Santa Monica home of a mutual friend. Eastman had remembered Potter from a Visa card ad he’d seen on TV, but their conversation soon ranged well beyond career chatter. “We were talking about relationships after the first 10 minutes,” recalls Potter. “He was talking about the dissatisfaction in his life. And I had been consciously seeking out a life partner and trying to envision the appropriate person….We just took off like gangbusters.” They were married five months later, because, Potter says, “It was the absolute soonest I could get a wedding together and the absolute longest that he could stand to wait. It was very romantic.”
Barely three months after the birth of their son, Christopher, in July 1987, Eastman started complaining of chest pains. X-rays revealed that the cause was fourth-stage lung cancer; inoperable, terminal. “I’d sit on the sofa breast-feeding Christopher,” she recalls with tears, “thinking, ‘He’s never going to know his father-never.’ It seemed like a bad dream.”
During the next six months, through chemotherapy, short remissions, alternative treatments and the eventual worsening, Potter stayed busy, partly to avoid thinking too much about the situation, which she couldn’t share with Eastman. “He made it clear very early that he didn’t want us to cry together. There would be none of that. He told me that the only way he could keep himself together was if I was totally positive and didn’t admit he was going to die. He never completely believed that would happen—he couldn’t admit it.”
Potter remembers that Eastman didn’t want to go into the hospital for what proved to be the last time, nor did she want him to. “We’d had this wonderful afternoon,” she says, “and when he fell asleep I thought, ‘This has all been just a bad dream. He’s going to wake up, and he’s going to be fine.’ ” Eastman died in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center a week later on April 19, 1988.
During the weeks and months after Eastman’s death, says Potter, when she had to move out of their big place in the Hollywood Hills to cut down on expenses and when her career was on hold, “Christopher kept me going. I had no energy at all for a couple of years, but Christopher was somebody I had to get up for every day. I had to make sure he got what he needed—emotionally, physically. Getting him to school, the doctor, those practical things.”
A year after the event, Potter was still full of rage and ennui. She joined the Young Widow/Widower Support Group of Los Angeles, and by sharing her feelings and letting go of her grief, by talking out practical problems and confronting the past, she was able to begin a return to normal life. When she first came to the group, says organizer Jo-Ann Lautman, Potter “was hunched over. She was gray; the ends of her hair were frayed. She was a different person.” Says Potter of her experiences, “The group not only helped me move ahead, they helped me accept where I was.”
The emotional acceptance is evident to her Beverly Hills, 90210 mates. Even so, she was called back by the producers three times to read for the part of Cindy. “I’d been auditioning for a year,” says Potter. “I thought I’d gotten past grieving for Spencer enough so that I should be getting work again, but I wasn’t. I truly thought I was never going to work again.” She needn’t have worried. “She’s the first person we saw, and everybody just went ‘Wow!’ ” says Tony Shepherd, an Aaron Spelling Productions, Inc. vice president who helped cast Potter. “She reacts right from the gut. That’s what makes her work so organic.”
When actor James Eckhouse, who plays Potter’s TV husband, read with her for his part, he assumed that she was from the casting agency because she was so low-key and natural. “She’s a deeper person because she’s managed to work it through and not let it cripple her,” says Eckhouse of Potter’s tragedy. “It makes her richer, more textured, and that reads on camera.”
For her part, Potter looks at her Beverly Hills role as a test run for son Christopher’s adolescence. She is, after all, the TV mom of two teens, and some of this season’s episodes deal with substance abuse, teen sex and AIDS.
When Potter met the wisecracking, energetic Josephson at a discount tire shop a year ago, she recalls, “I’d been in this semi-alive state for a long time, and he was like a breath of fresh air.” The two developed a tantalizing and provocative telephone relationship during the next weeks. “I decided that I didn’t want to meet this girl again,” says Josephson. “I was afraid that it would lead to a short-lived affair.” Says Potter, “I was crazy about him. I just had to hold back a little and give him the room to figure out that I was the one for him.”
He got the message. Married Oct. 20, both partners have found ways to deal with the memory of Eastman and adjust to the tragedy. Says Josephson, “It was a matter of smoothing out the rough edges so that we could fit Spencer into both of our lives.” And Josephson, who grew up with a stepfather after his natural father died, is working to help Christopher accept the situation. “My father died, and I will never let him go,” Josephson says, “and neither should Christopher.” Says Potter, “I couldn’t have had this job [Beverly Hills] before Jeffrey. Knowing that there is somebody there with Christopher who is his parent and who cares about him as much as I do makes all the difference.” The couple enjoy going out to movies and the theater, and as a family they enjoy hiking and four-wheeling and a game called dinosaurs, in which Josephson heaves a giggling Christopher onto his bed.
Behind the fun and the freshness, Potter remains soberly grateful for her new life. “I thought I would have a tough time saying ‘Till death us do part’ again,” she says. “The first time you say it, you don’t really believe that that time will come. But it does. But that’s okay, because until then, we’ll be together.”
J.D. Reed, Kristina Johnson in Los Angeles