November 28, 1983 12:00 PM

It was 1980 and Tess Harper gave herself an ultimatum: She had only three years to make it as an actress in Dallas. Or else. “I knew that Dallas had a great acting community,” says Tess, who had previously acted mostly in college. “If I wasn’t working in Dallas at the end of three years, I wouldn’t be working in New York or Los Angeles either.” After a disappointing first year, she won an interview with director Bruce Beresford for a small role in his low-budget film, Tender Mercies. He handed her a script and told her which part to prepare for a videotape audition the following day. “When I got home and read the script, I was flabbergasted to see it was the female lead role,” she says. “At one point, I even picked up the script and bit it to see if it was real.”

Real it was. Today Tess is everywhere. She snared the role of Robert Duvall’s saintly wife, and when Tender Mercies was released last March, the critical cheers lofted her career into orbit. After finishing that film, she moved to Los Angeles—although since then she has been too busy working to spend much time there. She’s usually cast as the “good, understanding wife,” she jokes. “All the other actresses get great wardrobes—mine come from Sears.” In her new film, Amityville 3-D, Tess plays the wife of Tony Roberts, an investigative reporter who wants to move into the Amityville horror house. “We are having marital problems,” she explains. “I’m against moving in there with our teenage daughter, and sure enough, I’m right.” Tess played Wayne Rogers’ wife in the recent CBS miniseries Chiefs, and she is paired with Joseph Bottoms in the NBC miniseries Celebrity, slated for early 1984. In next month’s feature film Silkwood, she appears in a small role, as the new wife of Meryl Streep’s ex.

An impressive list of credits, but Harper insists that the main thing that has changed in her life is her bank balance. She manages to lead a smalltown life in the big city. Her tiny one-bedroom apartment is situated at the bottom of a hill; to reach it, she must climb down 103 concrete steps from the road above. “Good exercise,” she observes, although it limits her shopping to one bag of groceries at a time. In what spare time she can find, she likes to read and do needlepoint. Her sole luxury: a new $18,000 BMW.

Tess’s specialty of small-town, ail-American roles follows naturally from her freckled face and homespun candor. Born Tessie Jean Washam 33 years ago, she was raised in Mammoth Spring, Ark. (pop. 1,158), the eldest of three children of the town’s hardware-store owner. Until she went off to Arkansas State University-Beebe, a junior college north of Little Rock, she had never been away from home. “The night I graduated from high school was one of the saddest nights of my life,” she says. “I cried. I knew a door was closing and I didn’t know what the next one that was opening up would bring.”

At her junior college, Tess discovered her vocation. As a girl she had dreamed of becoming a ballerina. “But when you live in an area where there are no dance teachers and your parents belong to a fundamentalist religion [Church of God in Christ] where dance is frowned upon, these kinds of artistic expression aren’t encouraged,” she says. “The moment I walked into the drama department, I knew I had found a home.” She then went to Southwest Missouri State University, where she majored in theater and married a fellow drama student. Ken Harper was the pride of the theater department. At one point, Tess says, she was refused a part by a professor who told her, “I didn’t give you that part because I think you should study, get out of school and get a job so your husband can be an actor.”

After college the Harpers moved to Houston, but in 1976 the five-year marriage ended. As Tess puts it, “We were fine as long as we were in the controlled environment of academe, but in the real world, the marriage didn’t hold up.” Before shooting Tender Mercies, her sole film credits had been local TV commercials and an IBM training film, but, she insists, “I was perfectly happy being a large fish in a small pond.”

With her visibility on the rise, Harper is even happier, although she claims she has been too busy for romance this year. She is still awed by the company she keeps. When she first read for Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies, she told her Dallas roommate, “Even if he hates me, I will have met him.” This year she made her first trip outside the country—representing Tender Mercies at the Cannes Film Festival. Her favorite encounter so far came in a New York bookstore, when a man wearing a baseball cap came up to her and asked, “Aren’t you the lady from Tender Mercies?” Looking up, she recognized songwriter Paul Simon. “My eyes got as big as saucers,” she says. “His lyrics had meant so much to me all of my life.” Tess adds, “I love things like that. I like it when people smile at you and nod their heads in recognition.” It’s lucky she likes those moments—otherwise she would just have to get used to them.

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