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Why is Mercedes Ruehl smiling?

The ”Last Action Hero” actress has a Tony, an Oscar, and the adoration of Shwarzenegger

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1. She’s a movie star. It took nearly two decades of waiting tables, regional theater, and bit parts. It also took a big break as bitch-goddess mafia wife Connie in Married to the Mob, a Tony (in 1991 for Lost in Yonkers), and an Oscar (in 1992 for The Fisher King). But now she really can put star on the résumé. This month she has roles in both the Serious Vehicle (the movie version of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, for which she reprises her role as the off-kilter Aunt Bella) and the not so serious: four scenes of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero, in which she plays mother to a little boy who gets magically drawn into an action film.

2. Arnold loves her. And she doesn’t mind him. Schwarzenegger liked her so much that the part in Hero was written for her. ”That’s easy on the ego,” she says. ”You wrote this for me?” Arnold even invited her to work out with him at his on-location gym. ”I’ve never been around that many Republicans before,” she says of Arnold and his cronies.

3. She gets the fabulous frocks. Stardom has its perks. Just watch her spin around Manhattan’s Valentino boutique, as a seamstress tucks her into a gold couture dress. ”Valentino loves her,” says the manager. The rigorous dieting and daily workouts show. She preens, she struts, sucks in her cheeks, shakes back her full black hair. She runs her hands across the front of the dress. She reminds herself aloud, ”I need support hose.”

4. Letterman is not in sight. She likes to go on about art and acting. She recites poetry the way some people reel off baseball stats. And she hates talk shows. Mention Deborah Norville, and she lets loose a Pavlovian shudder. It was her first morning-show appearance, in 1988. Ruehl told Norville she’d been practicing an Oscar acceptance in the shower since she was 12, but ”I don’t know if I could say anything on Oscar night without the sound of water running somewhere.” Norville wasn’t paying attention — or didn’t get it. Ruehl recalls, ”’Oh, God, I died on the Today show.”’

5. She can turn nuns to jelly. She was always itching to get on stage — even as a little girl growing up in Silver Spring, Md., the daughter of a schoolteacher mother and an FBI agent father. At Catholic elementary school, the dark-eyed student of Spanish-Irish descent ordered the nuns to set up stages so she could act out fairy tales. ”At the end of one play, she did a really funny dance she made up,” her mother, who’s also named Mercedes, remembers. ”One really heavy nun fell off her chair laughing, and they had a terrible time getting her up.”

6. She’s ageless. ”None of the women in my family give away their age,” says Ruehl. ”I didn’t know my mother’s exact age until I was a teenager.” (For the record, she graduated from the College of New Rochelle in 1969.)

7. Mitzi, her cat, won’t be seduced by L.A. ”There’s more to life than just films and actors and producers and appointments,” she says. She still lives in her bright Greenwich Village one-bedroom apartment, alone except for the 17-year-old feline she calls Mitzi Ruehl, Cat of the ’90s. ”Mitzi was with her through all the years she spent as a waitress,” says her friend and neighbor, novelist Jesse Green (O Beautiful). Mitzi likes to nap on a furry black rug by the fireplace. Above her stands a proud but unassuming gold statuette that Mitzi’s mistress has adorned with a tiny sombrero. While Mitzi dozes off, Oscar watches over.

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