INSIDE THEIR COZY BALTIMORE CARRIAGE house, actress Melissa Leo and her 8-year-old son Jack are engrossed in a game of make-believe. Pretending to be a wizard, Jack orders a rapid-fire string of fantasies: “Turn into a frog! Turn into an eagle! Now turn into Mom!” Leo obligingly hops on the floor, then flaps her arms, and finally collapses on Jack, covering his face with kisses as he squeals in delight.
Fantasy has been Leo’s refuge since she was about her son’s age and her parents divorced. “It was a place to hide in,” says the 35-year-old actress, now in her fourth season as edgy detective Kay Howard on NBC’s Homicide, filmed in Baltimore. “I was never very comfortable being myself.” And acting was her salvation during her bitter custody fight with Jack’s father, actor John Heard, 49. As Kay, she is invincible—a cop who always gets the bad guy. “There’s a big freedom,” she says, “in being somebody else.”
Leo’s own life has sometimes seemed more confining. When her parents split, her mother, Peggy, at the time a teacher, left her father, Arnold, then an editor, and moved Leo and her older brother Erik from New York City to Putney, Vt. Five years later, When Leo was finally feeling settled in Vermont, her mother moved the family to London, where she had taken a job supervising American students abroad.
Leo overcame her culture shock by enrolling in theater school. She loved it so much that the following year when her mother was ready to return to the U.S., Leo, then 16, refused to go. With her mother’s permission, she rented her own flat. “People say, ‘Did you leave home?’ ” Leo remembers. “No, home left me.”
Two years later, she came back to the U.S. In 1980, she began studying theater at the State University of New York at Purchase, but dropped out in her junior year to move to New York City and look for work. Her father was horrified. But she quickly landed a role as Linda Warner on All My Children, and by the end of 1985 she had been nominated for an Emmy. Arnold Leo, who now earns a living fishing on Long Island, N.Y., says proudly, “That was the last time her father objected to any career move by his daughter.”
Melissa met Heard (the father in the Home Alone movies) that year through her manager. They quickly began the three-year affair that produced jack—and the most agonizing period of Leo’s adult life. “It was a really, really destructive relationship,” says Leo. “After many years and many attempts at making it work, I basically realized it wasn’t going to be any different.” (Heard declines to comment.)
Breaking up was as hard as staying together. In 1991, Heard was arrested for assaulting Leo as they argued over custody of Jack. That issue was finally resolved by a court-ordered settlement a year ago. Heard, now costar-ring in the Atlanta-and L.A.-based CBS series John Grisham’s the Client, flies to Baltimore every other weekend to see Jack. He and Leo manage what she calls a “respectful” relationship.
During Leo’s first three seasons on Homicide, she commuted between Baltimore and her 200-year-old home in Upstate New York at least once a week (Jack was cared for by a babysitter). But this fall, the third grader moved to be with his mother full-time. Leo boasts that Jack’s teacher describes him as a natural leader.
Homicide has been a comfortable home for Leo, although she admits she’s more squeamish than her tough-as-nails character. “I don’t slow down at an accident,” she says, explaining why she didn’t ride around with real cops or visit the morgue to prepare for her role like most of the Homicide cast. “I don’t like to look at the horror that’s in the world.”
Even so, her Homicide colleagues see similarities between Leo and Kay. She is not “the ninth generation of Charlie’s Angels,” says executive producer Tom Fontana. “There’s a kind of no-nonsense, very focused spirit to Melissa that I think is also in the character.”
Leo doesn’t wear makeup on the show because she thinks Kay would not. And, like Kay, she admits to having been “very, very shy on romance” since Heard. But last year she met ski instructor Biff Russell on the slopes near her New York home. She and Russell, 41, spend as much time together as possible, a good deal of it rock climbing or mountain biking.
With her struggles behind her, Leo says she is trying to relax and just enjoy Jack and her work. “I get paid for doing the one thing I set out to do,” Leo says. “That’s a great blessing.”
SARAH SKOLNIK in Baltimore