October 25, 1982 12:00 PM

No wonder Glenn Close is off balance. She hoped she’d make her film debut playing Robin Williams’ wife in the screen version of John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Instead, director George Roy Hill cast her as Jenny, Garp’s mother, a feisty nurse who rapes a dying gunnery pilot to conceive a child in her 20s and dies from an assassin’s bullet some 30 years later. “Some people thought I was an older woman made up to look younger instead of vice versa,” says Close, 35. In the beginning, she fretted that playing an old woman was “not an ideal part for advertising myself.”

Critics less close than Close to her role begged to differ, hailing her as the best thing in the movie and comparing her to Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep. Which leaves Close a near-certain Oscar contender, with a renewed admiration for her on-screen character. “I wish there were more women like her,” she enthuses.

Well, not totally. Jenny, however compassionate, was a sex-hating celibate. Close has lived for the past five years with actor Len (The Four Seasons) Cariou, 43, and openly bemoans the times their careers keep them apart. “So far, there’s a great respect and love between us, which allows us to live with those separations,” says Glenn. Between jobs (her last Broadway show was Barnum in 1980), Glenn likes to go riding and camping with pal Mary Beth Hurt, who did play Garp’s wife in the film. Coincidentally, in Close’s next film, The Big Chill, she will co-star with William Hurt and Kevin Kline, respectively Mary Beth’s ex-husband and ex-boyfriend.

Born in Greenwich, Conn., where her ancestors settled around 1682, Glenn was one of four children of an idealistic surgeon who set up clinics in Switzerland and Zaire and now runs a country clinic in Big Piney, Wyo.

Glenn’s infatuation with acting began at Connecticut’s upper-crust girls’ school, Rosemary Hall, where she organized a theater troupe called “The Fingernails—the Group with Polish.” After five years of traveling with folk-singing ensembles, Glenn enrolled in drama at the College of William and Mary and graduated in 1974 with a Phi Beta Kappa key. She was lucky enough to land a job quickly as an understudy in Broadway’s Love for Love. Luckier still, when leading lady Mary Ure was dropped after the dress rehearsal, Close was tapped to take over her part. She had never even walked through the role. “It was trial by fire.”

Cariou saw her performance, but they didn’t meet until five years later in 1979, when he was starring as the demon barber in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and she was in the equally sanguinary The Crucifer of Blood. When Glenn visited backstage after seeing Sweeney, Len, twice divorced and the veteran of a year-long affair with Lauren Bacall, asked her out to dinner. “I just got so scared,” says Glenn. “I said ‘Yes,’ then had second thoughts, and called him back and said I couldn’t do dinner, but would maybe go out for drinks.” Not long after, they moved in together, repainting and remodeling an apartment in an 1842 Federal brownstone in Manhattan’s Chelsea district.

When Len is away, Glenn spends time with her needlepoint and, perhaps influenced by her role in Garp, finds herself thinking of motherhood. “I have a great desire for a family, and any woman in her mid-30s starts thinking about the shortness of life,” she reflects. “Yet I know my soul is in my work. It’s the age-old conflict between being an actress and being a woman.”

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