ABC’s womanhunt for the star of its 12-hour mini-series North and South was beginning to sound like the search for Gone With the Wind’s heroine. The network needed a charming, conniving, oft-bedded belle of the Old South, a Scarlett O’Hara gone bad. Newcomer Terri Garber wanted the role, but since her biggest credit was playing the consort of an orangutan in the 1983 flop series Mr. Smith, she didn’t think much of her chances. Wearing a jacket over a virgin-white, see-through tank top, she showed up the last day of testing. “I started reading.” she says, “and my jacket kept falling off my shoulders. My breasts were exposed and I was embarrassed. But I was doing the seduction scene. So I said to myself, ‘Oh, ——,’ and kept reading. I swear that’s how I got the part.”
Not exactly. It was actually her lack of exposure that made Garber, 24, the perfect Ashton Main, the series’ sexy centerpiece. “I didn’t want a tired TV image,” says director Richard Heffron. “Terri was fresh. Besides, she is the only actress who read who hadn’t seen Gone With the Wind.” The producers got a sister of Scarlett after all. “She looks like Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor,” says co executive producer Chuck McLain.
Looks come in handy for Terri’s alter ego, Ashton, because she seems intent on seducing the entire Confederacy. Says Terri of her role: “I give it to everyone but my husband. I kid you not! I’m off boffing everyone.” Ash-ton’s penchant for the boudoir became a signature joke on the set. Says Teri: “Whenever there was a bed on the set they said, ‘Oh, Garber must be shooting today.’ I’m in 900 crinolines or nothing.” Vamping around the veranda, Ashton reveals more cleavage than cunning. “I have tits out to here,” Garber says, pointing close to her chin. “I swear the next guy I go out with is sure going to be surprised because they ain’t real, speaking of padding!” And then she takes a breath. “I’m talking like a sleaze bag, aren’t I?”
Actually Garber projects one of the more ebullient, motor-mouth personalities around. Says co-star Kirstie Alley, “When Terri wants to attract a guy she puts her chin down, lifts her black eyes and twinkles. She’s a combination of Cleopatra and a Cheshire cat.”
Though her character is fixated on men, it’s the women in the cast that Garber got close to. Terri, Kirstie and Genie Francis formed an ad hoc sorority during the eight-month shoot in Charleston, S.C. and Natchez, Miss. “We were silly together,” admits Francis. “Lots of yakking and gossiping. It was like a pajama party.” They also played games. When Kirstie and Terri saw the male actors fighting according to the script, they decided to play warriors. But the ladies called their warfare “boob bumping.” Says Alley: “I’d yell, ‘I’m sick of you,’ to Terri and we’d run and bash breasts. We were padded so much we just bounced off each other.”
Since she grew up the youngest of three kids, such camaraderie didn’t grace Garber’s childhood. “Nobody asked me to the prom,” she remembers. “I was introverted and read a lot.” Terri was born in Miami, where her mother is a travel agent and her father a criminal lawyer. “Good place for my dad, Miami,” she deadpans. “The man works a lot.” Garber had a teenage bout with drugs and was doing cocaine at 17. “At first it was fun,” she says. “It enabled me to talk, and I got over my shyness. But I knew I was in trouble when I heard a drug seller say, ‘Oh, Terri. She’ll buy anything!’ ” Garber went into therapy in 1981 and managed to quit drugs, but still has nightmares. “Even today I don’t like to be awake when the sun rises. I remember speeding my brains out as the sun was rising every single morning.”
Acting helped pull Garber out of a tailspin. In high school, “I was playing Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and someone in the audience yelled out ‘Bitch,’ and I thought, ‘Good. It’s working.’ ” In 1979, after a semester at Boston University, she dropped out for a career in New York. She bombed as a waitress, getting fired at Windows on the World for dropping a tray of drinks on a visiting sheik. Her first professional role was in the network NBC soap Texas, playing the young tease of course. When the show folded she went to California where she was told to dye her hair red because she looked too ethnic. “They said I was too Italian,” she says, “and here I was, a Jew from Miami.” Garber was cast in Mr. Smith, a sitcom she hated: “I knew I had finally lost it when I was kissing the monkey on the lips.”
With the sequel to North and South presently shooting in Natchez, Garber is kissing success now. “When I first moved to New York I said, ‘No soaps, no commercials, no television. I just want to do Shakespeare.’ Well, that changed quickly.” And then she mocks herself: “You mean I got a soap? Thank God. I’ll take it—commercial? Sign me up.” She’s redecorating her apartment in Upper West Side Manhattan and reveling in the role of Ashton. “I was wearing leather and some big chains and walking down the street the other day,” she says with a wicked praline-sweet accent, “and this big old truck came up with two guys and they yelled out, ‘Hey there, bad girl.’ ” And then that magnolia-ripe smile sweeps across her face. “I thought to myself, ‘How do they know?’ ”