Don’t bother asking the secretaries of the world to unite. They already have. Behind Susan Ruttan of L.A. Law. As Roxanne Melman, selfless, underpaid desk drudge to selfish, bed-hopping boss Arnie Becker, Ruttan, 38, has emerged as TV’s most comically endearing girl Friday since Ann Sothern in Private Secretary. Now that the NBC series has picked up five Emmys and a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Ruttan, Roxanne would seem to have as much job security as L.A. Law’s senior partner. It wasn’t always so. After last year’s pilot, it took a barrage of irate letters from secretaries to convince the producers to beef up Ruttan’s part. L.A. Law co-creator Terry Louise Fisher concedes, “The part was ill-conceived and badly written. It took Susan with her funny, symbiotic relationship with Corbin Bernsen [who plays Becker] and her adorable voice to triumph over the word.”
And triumph she did. Ruttan recalls that her character was originally described as “someone who would chew off her right arm to be married to Arnie but knows it will never happen.” Tired of playing the victim, Ruttan suggested changes. By the end of last season Roxanne had upped her salary and become inured, sort of, to catching Arnie in flagrante delicto with his bimbos. “Rox will be even stronger this year,” Ruttan promises. “But she’s still so nice. I’d like to see her get angry.”
Ruttan says she harbors no animosity about playing frump while the rest of the Law cast exults in flashy courtroom histrionics. Susan is proud of her character, to whom she admits a close resemblance. “I think people are relieved that it’s not Joan Collins playing Roxanne,” she says. “This character is not climbing over bodies to get where she wants. She’s a person trying to grow up and find her way in this world. It’s hard. I sympathize.”
She identifies as well. Ruttan is a TV funny girl who refuses to make a fuss about an uncommonly painful and sometimes tragic past. Born Susan Dunrud in Oregon City, Ore., she was the only child of a logger father and a mother who was a nurse. Her parents separated when she was 2. Mom pushed on to California to be with her two children by a former marriage. Since her dad traveled for his job, Susan lived on a farm with her grandmother, a Norwegian immigrant. Susan recalls “not having any friends and being very internalized.” She spent leisure time with her grandmother, “sewing and watching Lawrence Welk.”
Grandma died when Susan was 12, and the youngster moved on to Portland’s Convent of the Good Shepherd school. She wasn’t angry at being shuffled about. “I felt more a sense of loss,” she says. In school her rebellious streak surfaced, along with her sense of humor. She was wicked in the morning confessional. “I made up bad thoughts to confess just to have the priest get involved with me,” she says. Still, feeling settled for the first time in her life, she decided to become a nun. “I went to the mother superior my senior year and said, ‘Mother Patrick, I think I have the calling.’ She looked at me and laughed, saying, ‘Dear, I think that was a wrong number.’ ”
After graduating in 1968, Susan visited her mother in California. While the two got to know each other better, Susan met Mel Ruttan, then 23 and a Vietnam Green Beret. Eight months later, though Susan says she “had never even kissed a boy before,” they were married. Susan’s new life was shattered three years later, when Mel was killed in a motorcycle accident. Scared and unsure of herself, she managed a bar in Sacramento for 18 months, then enrolled at UC Santa Cruz, where friends persuaded her to take acting classes. “I was emotionally vulnerable, lamenting my life and having no direction. Onstage I got to cry and find a place to let out my tears,” she says. She also found she could raise spirits. “When people laughed at what I said it felt so warm. I felt at home.”
She worked in Santa Cruz local theater productions for four years, went to New York for a year of off-Broadway and then in 1980 moved to L.A., where she managed to cadge a small role in The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo (“not exactly a classic”) and numerous parts in such series as Newhart, Night Court and Remington Steele. L.A. Law was a planned one-shot that developed into a career breakthrough, thanks to those secretaries.
These are halcyon days for the rejuvenated Susan Ruttan. She played her first “bad woman” in a TV movie about witches, Bay Coven, which aired last Sunday. And she’ll be a borderline psychotic in her first feature film, Spirit. Certifying her good fortune, last month she moved out of her one-bedroom L.A. apartment into a house in the Hollywood Hills, an adobe bungalow that she plans to remodel herself with some carpentry help from friend Bernsen, who gave her a huge cactus as a housewarming gift.
At the moment there’s no man in her life, which is just dandy with Susan. Five years ago she divorced her second husband, an actor, after two years of marriage. “We made a mistake,” says Susan. “We got married because we were great friends. We shouldn’t have. We’re not such great friends now.” The experience left her wary. “I just need to be careful,” she says. She’s certainly not looking for an Arnie Becker. “I don’t need that type of man,” says Susan. “A few years ago I would have said, ‘I can fix him, I can make him better. All he needs is a strong loving hand guiding him.’ But now I’m curbing that impulse to try to fix somebody. I want somebody who’s already ticking the way he should be.”
Children are another matter. “I love kids,” she says, “and I think I’d be a good person for a child.” She wants them—with or without benefit of marriage or commitment. She wants the same for Roxanne on the show. “I’d like to see her get pregnant, decide to keep the child and not get married,” says Ruttan. Secretaries, what do you think?