We know her as Stephanie Vander-kellen, the monied maid on Newhart who, having been from the manor booted, is forced to work—sort of—at Dick Loudon’s (Bob Newhart’s) Vermont Inn. Dubbed by her father (Jose Ferrer) as “high-strung, demanding and richer than all get-out,” Stephanie has taken the domestic job to assert her independence. Sure. But that wouldn’t stop her from flying off to Louis Vuitton in New York on her lunch break. Cupcake, as she’s called, has been known to don a widow’s black veil when cursed with a zit, choose her perfume to blend with the aroma of her meal and even throw a tantrum when her new puppy started winning more ooohs and aaahs than she did.
Julia Duffy, 34, the actress responsible for this walking rebuff of women’s liberation, has picked up four Emmy nominations in as many seasons for her portrayal of the serenely spoiled brat. Duffy insists that, beyond the blond hair, she’s not a thing like Stephanie. As to whether fans of the hit sitcom are disappointed when they find she’s really a modern-day Myrna Loy in a Farrah Fawcett body, Duffy shakes her head. “They’re relieved,” she says.
“Julia is the antithesis of Stephanie,” says Newhart, 58. “Her value system is intact and she’s very bright. I just stand in the wings and laugh. She’s like a jazz musician; she doesn’t go for the obvious.” At Julia’s instigation, Stephanie sings Ol’ Man River this season with all the emotion a rich white girl can muster. Says Duffy: “I thought the only thing funnier than Frank Sinatra singing it in black tie [in 1946’s Till the Clouds Roll By] would be a hopelessly white ingenue singing it without a clue as to what it means.”
While Stephanie is congenitally inept at anything approaching domesticity, Duffy brings homemade soups and breads to the family-like Newhart set and is the very picture of marital and maternal bliss. She is married to actor Jerry Lacy, 42, who played Humphrey Bogart in Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam, and is the ever-doting mother of Kerry, their 17-month-old daughter.
Lacy and Duffy met on the set of Love of Life in 1972 and a casual date led to 11 years of living together. In 1984 they risked marriage. It was not an anticlimax. The families, both mostly Irish, gathered in Castlegregory, Ireland (plane tickets courtesy of the starring couple). “The night before our wedding [the townspeople] threw a celebration at a local pub,” says Julia. “Everybody jigged and held us up on their shoulders. A lady sang Danny Boy. I had tears streaming down my face.” Parentage came quickly. “Julia made it clear that she intended to have a family,” says Lacy. “We proceeded cautiously. We had dogs first.”
Duffy was born in Minneapolis, the youngest of four girls. Her parents divorced when she was a baby, and her father, Joseph, died when she was 7. (Her mother, Mary, is remarried, working in real estate and still living in Minneapolis.) Duffy started acting when she was 10 and made her professional debut at 18 as the star of a local production of The Girl in the Freudian Slip. In 1970 she moved to New York and worked as a waitress and hatcheck girl while attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. By the time she graduated in 1972 she had landed on the soaps, where she stayed for five years—first as Gerry, a “horrible, loose, drug pusher” in Love of Life, then as Penny, “another bad girl,” on The Doctors. After that she did mostly TV guest shots (Cheers, Lou Grant) until the one on Newhart developed into a regular role. This summer, on a break from Newhart, she directed her husband in a regional theater production of Harvey. “It was deceptively easy with Jerry,” she says.
Duffy insists that she and her husband are inveterate homebodies. “We really don’t go to those Hollywood parties,” she says. “I just can’t imagine choosing to spend an evening at what I consider an audition. It’s not a real relaxing situation.” Another one of Duffy’s Hollywood peeves is the celebrity drug confessional. “These people say things like, ‘It’s terrible to be rich, white, attractive and talented. So I had to start taking drugs.’ We all have limited amounts of sympathy. I want to say to the housewives who read those magazines, ‘Oh, if you only knew! I am so much more like you than I am like these other celebrities.’ ”
While Lacy oversees plans for an eight-acre avocado grove and the building of their dream house on 30 oak-lined acres in the Malibu hills, Duffy is planting the seeds for a show of her own when the top-rated Newhart expires. It will be a comedy. “When I was younger and more tortured I wanted to suffer in my roles,” she says. “I don’t want to do that anymore. There are all these blondes around who cry and look lovely doing it.” Not unlike Steph, Duffy would prefer to keep the mascara on her lashes.