- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2000

NEW YORK As Jean Smart darts about her dressing room and its mirror-lined walls, making herbal tea for a visitor and answering the constantly ringing telephone, she appears to have you surrounded.
Everywhere you turn, she is there.
That seems to be true of her career, too.
She is back on Broadway in a revival of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's 1939 comedy "The Man Who Came to Dinner" for the first time since her 1981 debut in "Piaf." She also can been seen at movie theaters nationwide in "Disney's the Kid." She maintains a strong presence on television as well, having recently received an Emmy nomination for a guest appearance on "Frasier" and living on as Charlene in reruns of the sitcom that made her famous, "Designing Women."
Once the tea finishes steeping and the phone stops ringing, she talks about the personal reasons that kept her away from Broadway.
"We live in Los Angeles, and my son goes to school in Los Angeles. To decide to do a play out here is an enormous, enormous undertaking and a big decision for the whole family," she says.
Now that her son, Connor, is almost 11, the decision was a little easier. Plus, he was starting summer vacation and her husband, actor Richard Gilliland, was working in the East, too.
The convenient timing on the home front and the chance to work with two Tony winners actor Nathan Lane, who stars as Sheridan Whiteside, and director Jerry Zaks made Miss Smart decide to play the vampy, predatory diva Lorraine Sheldon.
"I have no idea what I'm going to do come September when my son starts school," she says. "I'm in total denial about that. I'm just pretending it's not happening. I'm good at that."
Meanwhile, the 47-year-old actress is having fun playing an actress who cannot cry. Mr. Zaks came up with the idea of Lorraine's no-more-tears blather, Miss Smart says, adding: "He let me just sort of take that idea and run with it."
In the play, Miss Smart's Lorraine hilariously tries to squirt tears, but her wincing lids come up dry.
Miss Smart has had diabetes since she was almost 13, but she doesn't have to do anything special while performing in "The Man Who Came to Dinner" except make sure that her blood sugar level is right before the curtain goes up and again at intermission.
She says she has learned to take the disease in stride.
"I used to stash candy all over the sets when I was doing plays," she says, knowing that she couldn't stop the way she could in a movie or TV show.

Miss Smart has filled a broad range of roles since leaving "Designing Women" in 1991. She played Rhett Butler's stogie-smoking friend in the CBS miniseries "Scarlett" and starred in made-for-TV movies as a retarded woman fighting for custody of her children and as the serial killer Aileen Wuornos. She also has had two sitcoms of her own since 1995, but they were canceled quickly.
Last year, she received rave notices as the bitter mother of a girl who has a May-December relationship with a photographer in the independent film "Guinevere."
She says she feels fortunate to have snagged such varied roles because versatility often is seen as a liability by the movie industry.
"They want to be able to plug you into a certain slot, and they really don't have the time or the inclination to try to figure out how to use you unless you're a mega-box-office star," says Miss Smart, whose film credits include "Mistress," "The Brady Bunch Movie" and "Snow Day."
"And I was stunned, when I came to L.A., [by the] number of actors I met who had never done theater. I actually didn't know that such people existed. I really didn't," she says. "I didn't get it."
The Seattle native has been working continually on stage since she graduated from the University of Washington. She began at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before moving on to regional theater in Hartford, Conn.; Pittsburgh; Seattle; and Alaska.
More recently, she starred in a Los Angeles production of "Marvin's Room" and off-Broadway in "Fit To Be Tied."
"Part of me thinks, 'If you had known then what you know now, you'd have gone straight to Hollywood when you were still young.' But I can't regret that because it gave me not only great times and great experience, but an enormous amount of self-confidence," she says of her stage experience.
Looking forward, Miss Smart hopes to reprise her "Frasier" role as Kelsey Grammer's paramour who turns out to be quite different from his long-held fantasy.
She jokes that the reason she received an Emmy nod this time around was because she did not vote. (Her mail was not forwarded to New York City.)
"Maybe that's why I didn't get nominated before I voted for myself," she says. "Piggy little actress."

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