November 24, 1986 12:00 PM

Helen Shaver, says her former husband, “is absolutely, uniquely Helen at all times.” Spend a day talking with the Canadian actress, who co-stars with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise in The Color of Money, and you begin to sense what her ex means. A nonstop talker and nicotine fiend who is continuously “fascinated by our fabulously expanding universe,” Shaver, 34, describes herself as a follower of the teachings of Gandhi, Buddha and The Wizard of Oz. An example of the Shaverian mind set: Even though she lost roles in 9½ Weeks and Once Upon a Time in America to other actresses, Helen believes she appears in those films spiritually because a psychic healer told her so.

Perhaps there was something preternatural in the way she was hired for The Color of Money. The role of Janelle, a blond, whiskey-throated bar owner and the love interest of Fast Eddie (Newman), didn’t even exist until just before filming started. Newman feared that the close relationship between Eddie and his pool-hustling protégé (Cruise) might be misinterpreted unless Eddie had a girlfriend, so the part of Janelle was quickly created. Martin Scorsese had just directed Shaver in an Amazing Stories TV episode and thought she might be right for the character. The result was a break more fortunate than any executed on green felt. Thanks to her performance in Money, Shaver joins the likes of John Candy and Michael J. Fox as Hollywood’s favorite Canadian imports.

You can tell by her walls. Each time Shaver finishes a motion picture she buys a motionless picture for her hilltop Hollywood home. The latest additions to her collection of modern art include a painting for Money and one for The Believers—a murder mystery, due out in June, in which she plays Martin Sheen’s landlady and lover.

Clearly the stunner from St. Thomas, Ontario has made believers out of the same California movie people who rejected her in 1974, when they discovered that the would-be actress had no green card. “They said, ‘Go home and become a star in your own country,’ ” says Shaver. “I said, ‘But there are no stars in Canada!’ ” The fifth of six daughters, Helen telephoned her mother for consolation. Doris, now 73, confessed that she’d been praying for Helen to make it in Canada first. “We had a great fight about that,” says Helen, whose father, a railroad engineer, died in 1982. “I told her, ‘If you’re going to pray for me, Mother, do it in neutral!’ ”

Mom’s prayers were answered. Shaver made her reputation in the Great White North, appearing in 13 films and winning a Best Actress Genie—the Canadian Oscar—for her role in 1978’s In Praise of Older Women. “I worked,” she says. “I got my education.”

Roles in the U.S. followed gradually, including the title character in Jessica Novak, CBS’ short-lived 1981 series about a TV newswoman. Certainly Shaver’s most controversial part was that of a lesbian professor in this year’s critically acclaimed film Desert Hearts. “Kissing another woman is quite extraordinary,” she says, laughing. “There are no whiskers, and it’s very soft.” Though friends thought that as a result she might be typecast as a homosexual, Shaver knew that Desert Hearts was “the best script I’d ever been offered. Besides, I’m quite secure in my sexuality.”

Shaver’s private life hasn’t been quite as serendipitous as her career. A three-year marriage to film company executive Steve Reuther ended in 1982. “I’m thrilled I had a relationship with Helen,” says the congenial Reuther, 35. “I feel sorry for people who haven’t.” Shaver says she is currently dating an artist, but won’t name him because “the relationship is in its tender, formative stages.”

Whoever he is, no doubt he shares the sentiments expressed by Color of Money screenwriter Richard Price. “She has the look of having been around a few corners, but she still has a softness,” says Price, who believes that casting a 34-year-old is a blow against “the tyranny of the tight butt and tight face. It takes the Nazism out of age for actresses.” Price’s enthusiasm isn’t surprising. Whether it’s from film-goers, filmmakers or ex-husbands, Shaver usually evokes a spirited response.

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