People hate me for the life I lead,” insists Mary Page Keller, and indeed sometimes she feels she must be the most disliked person in America. Why? Sheer envy by her lessers of a kid who has everything. At 26 she’s got the lead in the most effervescent new sitcom on TV, Fox Broadcasting’s Duet. She’s got a large, antique-laden co-op in Manhattan and a similar-size rental in Hollywood. She’s got a black four-wheel-drive Chevy. But the primary cause of jealousy, as Keller sees it anyway, is that she’s got Thomas Ian Griffith, a blue-eyed guy with shoulders as wide as a surfboard is long, who was her co-star on the soap Another World. “We’re both headstrong and we clash, but I’ve never met a man who looks out for my needs the way Thomas does,” says Keller, who at the moment is whipping up a batch of banana-nut muffins with him in her Hollywood kitchen. “He’s the brightest, smartest person I know. We’re so happy together, I think people hate us.” At that, Griffith brings her down to earth with a playful jab to her arm. “Why, you pretentious little brat,” he says.
Actually she doesn’t seem pretentious at all. Confident and self-possessed, yes, but not puffed-up like a Wilshire Boulevard publicist. She’s sweeter than that. In fact, with those hazel eyes and that delicately boned face, Keller is perhaps the prettiest female lead in TV comedy today.
Eat your heart out, Bea Arthur.
Her Duet, which premiered in April, owes much of its appeal to a unique premise. Step by step, it follows the romance between a caterer (Keller) and a detective novelist (Saturday Night Live trouper Matthew Laurance) from their first meeting to first night to first fight. No one is saying whether the show’s June 28 cliffhanger ends with wedding bells or alone-again blues. On the other hand, no one is denying that Duet became a hit only after smoothing over some early rough spots. Keller admits the show seemed out of sync at first, mostly because the cast members (including Jack Lemmon’s son Chris) weren’t used to each other. “But in the ensuing episodes we’ve worked well together,” she says. “There are no stars here, nobody with any more clout than anyone else.” Duet’s co-creator Ruth Bennett agrees that cooperation is the dominant cast motif. “I can’t see Mary, for example, straining to be a star,” says Bennett. “But who knows? Someday I hope we have the chance to deal with a star problem.”
If so, they may be dealing with Keller, whose easy walk to the top has been surprisingly surefooted. She was born in L.A., where her mother had worked as an animator on such Disney films as Pinocchio and Fantasia. When Mary was 10, her father, a structural engineer, moved the family to Silver Spring, Md. Mary was a senior at Springbrook High School when she tried for and snared her first lead role, as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Studying drama at the University of Maryland, she won the lead as Laura in The Glass Menagerie. “Everyone hated me for that,” she recalls, typically. During the play’s run, Mary heard that Ryan’s Hope was auditioning for an ingenue. She got the part—naturally—and moved to New York within the month.
Unfortunately Keller was let go seven months later. But in May 1983, after only three months’ unemployment, she was hired to play Another World’s beleaguered Sally Frame. Keller stayed with the show for two years, becoming one of the most beloved—or, in her terms, begrudged—members of the soap brigade.
A half year after she was cast, Thomas Ian Griffith auditioned as rough-and-tumble womanizer Catlin Ewing. Keller’s first thought: “I don’t care who they cast. What is this man’s name?” Despite her favorable reaction, she and Griffith didn’t start dating until six months later—about the same time their characters did. The parallel relationships, so convenient for the show’s publicity, “ticked me off,” says Keller. “I felt like telling the writers, ‘Hey, this is my life. Don’t put it out on nationwide TV.’ ”
Mary left the show when her contract was up, making a horror film titled Scared Stiff (“the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen”) before landing Duet last December. Her relationship with Griffith easily survived her departure from the soap. “Ninety percent of the actors who work together get this heated, passionate thing,” she says. “Then it falls apart because it was only based on what the characters were doing. But not us.” Although they’re not planning an imminent marriage, Mary says, “We take it as fact that we’re together for the rest of our lives.”
“Yeah,” laughs Griffith, “she’s stuck with me.”
Griffith, 27, left Another World last December and is looking for roles in L.A., hoping he and Keller can work in the same town. It seems a good bet, because Duet has just been picked up for a second season on Fox. With her immediate future assured, Keller can afford at least one career certainty—no more soaps. “It’s good experience, good money and I met my boyfriend that way, which is the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “But the soaps are an area of my life I’ve written off. If you can memorize lines, look natural and speak English, you can do a soap.”
Griffith agrees. “You don’t have to be a good actress to do soap opera,” he says, “so people who have other things going on in their lives stand out.” One thing about Keller: Like her or dislike her, she certainly is a standout.