By Paula Chin
August 22, 1994 12:00 PM

ON A CLEAR, SWELTERING IDAHO morning, Jamie Lee Curtis is hiking through the sage-covered mountains with her beloved dogs Lucy and Henry. She’s enviably trim and fit, but the steep trail soon has Curtis panting. Not that any wilderness trail could ever sap her spirit or her sassiness. “I hate you,” she says, nonchalantly, to a companion who is not sweating quite as much as she. In a moment, though, the 35-year-old actress is moving again and chattering away about her role as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife in the summer hit True Lies (“She’s the most well-rounded character I’ve ever gotten to play”) and the rough pleasures of her mountain retreat (“It reduces you to nothing but a winded bag of bones”). Then, suddenly, the subject is dogs, particularly the late great Clark, an impish poodle-mutt who died two years ago. “Poor dead Clark,” she moans. “No bark Clark. I channel his voice, you know. Sometimes I call people and leave messages in his voice.”

In a few moments, Curtis reaches a ridge overlooking a valley—and settles on a more serious subject: the recent death of her half-brother Nicholas. Her eyes seem to cloud over as she pulls a water bottle from her fanny pack and shoves it first into Lucy’s and Henry’s mouths, then drinks from it herself. Nicholas, the 23-year-old son of her father, Tony Curtis, and his third wife, Leslie Allen, was a musician with a history of substance abuse who died of a drug overdose in Provincetown, Mass., on July 2.

On the morning she arrived back in Idaho after the funeral, Curtis says, she found a gray feather in this same mountain clearing and tucked it into the mesh crown of her ever-present baseball cap. And there the tattered plume still flutters. “I just sort of thought it was him,” she says. “It’s so hard to imagine he’s gone. He really touched a lot of people. I miss him so much.” She begins to cry. A wind comes over the ridge, stirring up the scent of sage, and Curtis wipes the tears away. “Besides my grandmother, I’ve never lost anybody in my family. It’s so sad. But it made me realize that although my father had children from three different marriages, we’re still very much a family, and we mourn together like a family.”

Curtis’s life these days is full and complicated—but rich. Her 10-year-old marriage to actor-director Christopher Guest, perhaps best known as one of the metal-brained band members in 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap, is, by her own description, the picture of domestic bliss. The couple has an 8-year-old daughter, Annie, whose existence, says Curtis, “is the most profound, nondescribable event of my life”—and whose adoption inspired the actress to write a book about that aspect of motherhood. Among her other accomplishments, she says, is that “I make the best Caesar salad anyone has ever tasted. In some circles,” she adds, “I’m as famous for it as I am for my breasts.” And then—oh, yeah—there’s this movie-star stuff, which makes Curtis “real proud of what I’ve accomplished.”

About a week after Nicholas’s funeral, her megabudget action-comedy True Lies opened across America, instantly providing Curtis with the biggest boost of her 17-year career. And though some have called the movie misogynistic because of the way Curtis’s character is manipulated by Schwarzenegger in several scenes, Lies also gives Curtis a chance to play the action-heroine role to the hilt. She has, after all, been almost everything else. Starting out as Hollywood’s “Scream Queen” in 1978’s Halloween, she was dubbed the Body after her sexpot roles in Trading Places and Perfect; Curtis then became a comedian in 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda and the ABC-TV series Anything but Love before becoming a mother figure in My Girl and Forever Young. And Jamie has always been an actress whom men find sexy and women like for her endearing earthiness.

True Lies’ Helen Tasker, though, is something else again—a mousy, repressed housewife who is transformed into a superspy, decking the bad guys while decked out in décolletage. It is, in more ways than one, the role of Curtis’s life. “Helen,” she says, “is a combination of mother, wife and someone who doesn’t want to draw too much attention to herself for the sake of her family.”

Can this be the same, foulmouthed Jamie who once proclaimed herself “a twisted creature” and “a trash bag of a woman”? Indeed, Curtis has mellowed and come of age, in her fashion. Surefooted in her Nike running shoes, she sprints down the mountain trail, still chattering all the way. Back at her rustic, three-bedroom home in a nearby valley, she finds her husband and daughter about to head off to the town swimming pool. Annie leaps into her mother’s arms, wrapping her legs around Curtis’s waist; they hug, talk for a minute, and then Annie is on her way. “With a marriage and a child, my life is this blend of being wild and carefree, and on another level careful and cautious,” she says. “It’s weird but I’m really happy.”

Curtis has a ready explanation for her blissful domesticity—her own relatively normal upbringing in the abnormal world of Hollywood. “My mom instilled a lot of good, concrete values,” she says, “respect, how you treat people, the importance of family and friends.” Curtis was only 3 years old in 1962 when her father and her mother, actress Janet Leigh, divorced. She and her older sister Kelly grew up with Leigh and their stepfather, stockbroker Bob Brandt, in the woodsy environs of L.A.’s Benedict Canyon. “I remember a little countrified life with the two of us putting on shows in the basement,” she says. “My mom let us children stay children.”

As she grew to adolescence, though, her relationship with her natural father evaporated. He became “a stranger, then a real stranger, then an enemy,” Curtis has said of her father. Tony admits that his drug and alcohol problems, and his prolonged absences, drove a wedge between them that lasted for years. “I didn’t see much of her as a child,” he says. “But she was very interesting—introverted at one point, different. We didn’t start being friends until she was 17 or 18.” Now Curtis talks to her father—and mother—on the phone at least once a week. “We have a great, funny relationship,” he says. “We’re very tight.”

Curtis recalls herself as a natural ham who wanted to pursue acting right after attending Connecticut’s tony Choate School, but her mother insisted she go to college first. “I didn’t want her to be just another kid in the business, because I’d seen so many who turned out unhappy,” says Leigh. Curtis dropped out of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., her mother’s alma mater, after one semester. Her first job was two lines in a 1976 episode of Quincy; two years later she was the shrieking suburban teen in John Carpenter’s low-budget Halloween. She made six more horror flicks during the next several years—a time when she has admitted to experimenting with cocaine.

In the summer of 1983—the year she made Trading Places—Jamie decided it was time to clean up her act. Not long afterward, Curtis, who had dated rocker Adam Ant and been engaged to production designer Michael Riva, was thumbing through a copy of Rolling Stone when she saw a picture of Guest gussied up in his Spinal Tap gear. In his smirk, Curtis suspected a kindred spirit and, on the spur of the moment, called his agent. Guest didn’t call back; it was a time, he said, when “bizarre women were calling at 3 or 4 in the morning.” But they met by chance two months later at an L.A. restaurant and fell in love. “It’s hard to talk about Chris, because all you’re going to hear is the word ‘great,’ ” she says. “He’s a great listener, a great athlete, a great husband and father.” At home in Los Angeles, the couple pretty much shun the celebrity circuit; Guest is particularly fierce about keeping their lives private.

Curtis thinks her own pragmatism about matters of the heart also helps them stay happy. “I’m not a dreamer, never have been,” she says. “I admire people who can see a romantic comedy and get lost in it, but I have the problem of going back home and trying to deal with a real marriage, which is very different from that.” Curtis also rules out working on joint projects with Guest. “We collaborate in bed, you know?” she says with a smirk.

Besides, Curtis would hardly have wanted her husband around on the True Lies set, especially during her much-talked-about dance scene in a bra and panties—a bump-and-grinding, bedpost-licking number that ticked off more than a few feminists. The rap against the movie is that Curtis’s character often winds up in humiliating situations. Curtis had her own problem with the dance routine: She doesn’t see herself as a siren. “My looks, in my opinion, have never been something that’s good about me,” she says. To be as presentable as possible, she dieted hard-core and exercised daily. “What was great was that Helen was nervous, so I got to be nervous,” she says. As for what she calls “the brouhaha” about antifemale overtones, Curtis says, “If someone wants to say that, then that’s fine. I’m not going to make a case to defend it, because I frankly think it’s fabulous and funny, and they should lighten up.”

For his part, True Lies director James Cameron (Terminator 2, Aliens) loved Curtis’s naughty-girl humor. “Jamie fell into a real groove with Arnold because they’re both jokers and they’ve both got gutter mouths,” he says. Jamie did indeed hit it off with the big guy. “I didn’t expect to become friends after the movie—that’s unusual for me—but we are. With Arnold everything you see and hear is the truth. He really is that big, friendly, self-deprecating man.”

There are some matters Curtis takes quite seriously. Reaching into a clutch of framed pictures in a corner of the family room, Curtis finds the one of grandpa Tony holding baby Annie. “Nothing cuter in the world than that, huh? My baby’s so sweet,” she gushes. “I refuse to be just a witness to my daughter’s youth. I want to participate in it as long as she’ll let me.” For now, that includes reading Annie her bedtime stories, painting and hiking together and being an active member of the school carpool.

Motherhood has also spawned a writing career. Curtis has published one children’s book, last year’s When I Was Little, and her new work, Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born, is due next year. Inspired by Annie—whom Curtis and Guest adopted at birth—Tell Me is a celebration of birth from an adopted child’s point of view. Curtis’s other great passion is photography. Longtime friend Lisa Birnbach, author of The Official Preppy Handbook, says Curtis’s best work was taking the first pictures of Lisa and her newborn baby at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Medical Center in 1990. “For security reasons no one is allowed in the room with mother and baby, so Jamie hid under the bed for more than an hour before they brought Sam in,” Lisa recalls. Curtis says she’s seriously thinking about pursuing photography full-time in the not-too-distant future. “As soon as the issue of my looks gets to be difficult,” she says, “I just won’t act anymore. It’s no big declaration. The older you get, the harder it is to do it. Maybe in my early 40s, I’d love to not live my life up on a movie screen.”

Even now, she’s being choosy. Her next project is a Wand a sequel, which doesn’t start filming until next spring. And until then she would like to spend as much time as possible away from L.A. and back in Idaho, where folks are friendly, families are happy—and you can kibitz to your heart’s content. Finished hiking for the day, Curtis stops by the town juice bar, where she eyes a father and son standing by the counter. “Where’s your wife?” she asks the man, with mock snappishness. He doesn’t recognize Curtis. “Oh, probably around here shopping,” he says.

“You’re saying that just because she’s a woman, aren’t you? For all you know, she’s toiling to keep you and your family alive,” Curtis chides.

“Well, I guess you could be right,” he says.

“Of course I’m right,” she replies. Then, suddenly, Curtis melts, smiles—and shoves her glass at him. “Now here,” she says, “have some of my veggie drink.”