At the age of 18 months, Kelly Curtis had already spent a third of her young life with her actor dad, Tony, on a movie set in Norway during filming of The Vikings. But it was in an elegant New York City hotel on the way back to Los Angeles that she was first exposed to what, for her, was a new entertainment medium. “There was a television set in the middle of the room, and I turned it on,” recalls Tony, 65. “Then I got a little portable potty for her so that she could sit in front of it. When the screen lit up, she was transfixed. She got up, looked in the back of the television and wondered, ‘Where are those little things on the front of that machine coming from?’
“Now,” he continues grandly, “she’s on the front of it, and some other kid sitting on a potty is gonna look at her.” In this case, there is good reason for Papa Curtis’s paternal pride. On Nov. 19 he and Kelly, 34, will be paired together for the first time on the bright side of the tube. The vehicle is NBC’s Thanksgiving Day, a raucous holiday fable co-starring Mary Tyler Moore and Jonathon Brandmeier (see page 115), in which Tony gets to keel over dead at the dinner table and Kelly gets to play his complicated lesbian daughter.
If this sounds like a nightmare version of Miracle on 34th Street, there could be no better players than these two members of the Curtis clan, who both know a thing or two about breaking trail in the dysfunctional family department. For starters, there was Kelly’s childhood as the offspring—along with little sister Jamie Lee—of Curtis and wife Janet Leigh, two of the glossier stars of ’50s Hollywood. “When I’d travel with them to a foreign country to work, there’d be fanfare and flowers,” says Kelly. “In fact I may have overplayed it in my mind: ‘Oh, they’re royalty. That must make me a princess.’ ”
The fairy tale crashed bitterly, however, with her parents’ 1963 divorce. A decade later, after the teenage daughters spent a summer with their father, Kelly chose to continue living with him, a move that particularly rankled Jamie Lee, who sided with Mom. “When a family seems like it’s going to be fractured, you protect the hurt leg,” says Jamie Lee, 32. “I felt really protective toward my mom.”
According to Leigh, 63, Kelly’s three years with Curtis ultimately improved her own relationship with her older daughter. “It made me step back from being just mother and disciplinarian,” she says. “I realized that she was an adult human being, and that started our friendship.”
Kelly’s alliance with Dad, however, was more of a problem. By the early 1980s, Curtis was battling a well-publicized alcohol and cocaine habit—a way of life that Kelly had futilely done her best to squelch. But “if someone is that destructive, it doesn’t matter who you are,” she says. “They’re unable to hear you, no matter how loud you’re screaming. I tried to go in and pick up the pieces he was leaving—paying bills, that sort of thing.” In 1984 Curtis shook his addiction and credits Kelly with being, during his recovery, “the most encouraging and understanding woman I’ve ever known.”
Unlike Jamie Lee, who admits she and her father once snorted cocaine during her own now-ended druggie phase, Kelly never felt such inclinations. “I think I was just too stubborn,” she says. “I’ll go through pain before I’ll numb it.”
But that lesson wasn’t learned until relatively late in life, at about the time Curtis turned to acting—several years after she’d earned a 1978 Skidmore business degree and worked briefly as a stockbroker. “I slowly started figuring out who I was,” she recalls, “and what I wanted to say.” Which hadn’t always been easy. One manifestation of unresolved childhood conflicts was a lingering stutter that she finally lost through therapy. “It’s almost as if the reason you stutter is because you don’t think you deserve to be heard,” she says. “When you realize that what you have to say has value, that relaxes everything, and you can say it.”
Compared to the old days, Kelly is now downright outspoken. Just two weeks after her first date with writer-producer Scott Morfee, 36, Kelly made a proclamation. “I said, ‘Look, Scott, if this isn’t leading to marriage, then I don’t want to be in this, because I’m gone. I’ve fallen. This is it.’ I couldn’t believe that came out of my mouth, but I felt great.” And it also paid off. Last year, the pair stole off to be married in Niagara Falls and now happily spend off-hours fishing and gardening at their Long Island home.
The rift with her sister, too, has mended. “Jamie and I have run the gamut from tearing each other’s hair out when we were kids, to ignoring each other, to being each other’s best friend,” says Kelly, who has worked only once with Jamie Lee, in a bit part in 1983’s Trading Places.
“It wasn’t like we hated each other. There was always an underlying, basic sort of sisterly thing,” says Jamie Lee, who asked Kelly to be maid of honor at her 1984 wedding to Christopher Guest and godmother to her daughter, Annie, 3. “We just never really were confidantes. And now we are.”
Which is not to say that a smidgen of sibling rivalry doesn’t sometimes intrude. In one of Thanksgiving Day’s more memorable scenes, Kelly roughhouses with her brother, pins him, then dramatically threatens to drool on him. “I used to do that to Kelly all my life—that’s where she learned it,” says Jamie Lee, in a sisterly boast. “If she gets an Emmy for this, all I want is credit.”
—Susan Schindehette, Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles