By Richard K. Rein
April 26, 1982 12:00 PM

The struggle of an unknown actress to keep pace with her famous mother may be the stuff of soap opera, but it is also a painful reality for Dinah Manoff, 26, the look-alike offspring of Oscar winner and stage veteran Lee Grant, 52. That’s why repeating her Broadway role onscreen in Nell Simon’s I Ought to Be in Pictures, co-starring Walter Matthau and Ann-Margret, is much more than a career break. “Our identities are separate now,” says a relieved Dinah. “It took a lot of work. In the beginning, when I got insecure, my manner would become imitative of hers.” Neither liked the situation. “Those were hard times for her and me,” Dinah admits. Raves for her stage work in Pictures have eased the tension. Says Dinah: “Now only me emerges.”

The “me” in question isn’t far from her film character, a fast-talking Brooklyn teen who heads for Hollywood to find stardom and the screenwriter father (Matthau) who deserted in her childhood. Dinah too knows what it’s like to feel the loss of a parent. She left Manhattan for Malibu with her mother when her parents separated. (Her blacklisted TV writer father, Arnold Manoff, died of a heart ailment when she was 9.) Of her youth, she confesses, “I loved being a troublemaker. At Santa Monica High I would smoke on campus, go barefoot, anything.” Lee wasn’t pleased. Dinah says she did it for effect. In fact, Dinah was scared to tell her mother she envisioned an acting career. “I had no sense Dinah was even thinking in that direction,” says Grant, now married to TV producer Joe Feury. “I thought she was playing around.”

After a year at the California Institute of the Arts (at her mother’s suggestion), Dinah decided to put her talent to the test. She began acting classes and soon landed small roles on TV. Next came a part as Marty in the film Grease, a year’s stint on TV’s Soap and the role of Timothy Hutton’s suicidal pal in Ordinary People. But the turning point came with her 1980 Broadway debut in I Ought to Be in Pictures. As opening night approached, mother was more nervous than daughter. Lee advised her only to take chances. “That’s something I don’t do,” admits Lee, “but Dinah did and was wonderful. At the party at Sardi’s people clapped when she walked in. It didn’t mean a thing to her.”

Dinah’s reaction later to winning the Tony award was equally practical. “It doesn’t change your career,” she explains. “I saw my mother win an Oscar [for 1975’s Shampoo] and Hollywood was not at her doorstep the next day.” There are tentative plans for a movie starring Dinah, directed by Lee and produced by Feury, and Dinah is eager to work with her mother in any medium. The recent CBS flick For Ladies Only didn’t count. “We had no scenes together,” says Dinah. “We just slept with the same man. It was kinky.”

Dinah is reticent about her own love life. “I have a big interest in boys,” she confesses, but she won’t identify her current man except to say he’s French and not an actor. “It’s still too new,” she demurs. Dinah wants to sublet her one-bedroom Manhattan duplex so she can summer in L.A. with girlfriends Valerie Landsburg (of TV’s Fame series) and Gillian Farrell (a waitress in Pictures). “We sit around in our pj’s, drink coffee and chat. I love all that.”

Family is important to Dinah, who has four half siblings. These days she consults her mother on important decisions. But don’t expect a follow-up movie about their mother-daughter relationship. “We would hesitate to open that one up,” Lee says with a laugh. Still, there’s little doubt that the old adversaries have become allies. “I wear a St. Christopher medal,” Dinah reveals. “On the back it says: ‘Good luck, good luck, good luck—Mama.’ ”