Patricia Wettig survives cancer on ''thirtysomething''
”Am I all right?” There was a moment not long ago when Patricia Wettig woke up wondering if there was something dangerously wrong with her.
There wasn’t, but the actress was so immersed in her thirtysomething role as cancer patient Nancy Weston that she couldn’t be blamed for even momentarily confusing TV with her own life. For almost a year, she had devoted herself to the demanding task of playing a woman who had to consider the possibility of death every day. If Wettig sometimes needed to reassure herself that she really was okay, that was only natural. As it turned out, Wettig’s Nancy was all right, too: In last week’s much-anticipated, riveting episode of the ABC show, her second-look surgery for ovarian cancer brought an all-clear from the doctor.
Millions shared her sigh of relief.
Since the first cancer episode aired Jan. 16, 1990, viewers have been unable to stop talking — and worrying — about whether Nancy would survive. And that talk has been accompanied by impressive ratings: This season’s cancer episodes have on average drawn 17 percent more viewers than others. The impact has gone beyond Nielsen numbers, however. On March 20, when the third cancer episode aired last season, Ted Koppel devoted Nightline to ovarian cancer. Worried by thirtysomething‘s ominous depiction of a disease that is diagnosed in 20,000 Americans each year and has a five-year survival rate of only 38 percent, women made a point of calling doctors. Hot-line inquiries about ovarian cancer to the American Cancer Society increased by 5,000 in the wake of two very public stories about the disease — the thirtysomething shows and Gilda Radner’s death in May 1989.
Rarely does prime-time TV have such an effect. People had fun guessing who shot J.R. and who killed Laura Palmer, but Nancy and cancer seemed true. For all the early sniping that the show wallowed in the whines of yuppies, thirtysomething has never been fainthearted about bad things happening to good people: Just last Tuesday night, as Nancy was getting the hoped-for news, literature professor Gary Shepherd (Peter Horton) was killed when his car was hit by a tractor-trailer. It was an unsettling episode — the end of one character’s year of anguish juxtaposed with the random death of another — and one of the most daring in a long line of shows that have challenged thirtysomething‘s viewers as well as the series’ actors, writers, and producers.
Creating the six-episode cancer cycle has involved long, intense discussions with cancer patients, angry arguments between producers and writers, and 12 emotionally draining months for Wettig. So convincing has her portrayal been that when she arrives for an interview and slides out of her black, buckled loafers, it seems impossible to believe that this serene woman with her yellow fall of hair could be the same one who, ashen and emaciated, brought cancer home for millions.
Wettig readily says staying calm under this acting regimen has been a struggle. There was the day when an acquaintance insisted that Wettig truly was ill. ”I told her very definitely that I was in good health and that this had nothing to do with my reality,” the actress recalls. ”She disagreed.”
Wettig brought to her role considerable experience on TV’s most realistic programs: Before thirtysomething, she had appeared on Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law (as the woman who shot her husband in the law firm’s conference room) and played Dr. Jack Morrison’s second wife on the final season of St. Elsewhere. But she nourished her understanding of Nancy by seeking out real people who were suffering from cancer and by going to meetings of the Wellness Community, a Santa Monica, California-based cancer support group. She was particularly struck by the small, often ironic crises and problems she saw and heard about: the way patients who met her for lunch had to rush off to pick up their kids at school, and one mother’s story of being able to choose whom her child would live with after her death but unable to buy silverware because it seemed an investment in a future that she might never have.
”These people live with it for year after year after year,” Wettig says. ”And it’s just those minute details of the ongoingness of life that we’ve had the opportunity to explore.” When Wettig saw a cancer patient wearing a bandanna to hide the ravages of her treatment, she knew that was Nancy’s style. She also decided to keep a few long strands of hair after chemo had taken the rest, sensing that Nancy would not be able to cut off that testament to a better life no matter how ridiculous it looked.
Wettig’s own life stands in sunny opposition to her character’s. She was born in 1951 in Cincinnati, the daughter of a college basketball coach and an elementary school teacher. She grew up in Grove City, Pa., went to Temple University in Philadelphia, then moved to Manhattan, where she acted Off Broadway. In January 1982, she met Ken Olin, who plays Michael Steadman on the show and who directed last week’s episode. Three months later, they were married and on their way to L.A. They live outside the Hollywood spotlight in a Brentwood home with wraparound porches, which they share with their two kids: Roxanne, 5, who goes to bed before thirtysomething comes on, and Clifford, 7, whose biggest thrill of late was having Yeardley Smith, who does the voice of Lisa Simpson, sign his Simpsons T-shirt. Every week, Wettig talks by phone to her best friend, who still lives in Grove City, and her own hushed voice still carries something of a small town in it. She laughs easily and often.
For the cancer episodes, thirtysomething‘s writers spent hours talking to Wettig about the traumas that have intruded on her own life: her father’s death in 1981; the loss of a close friend five years ago to lung cancer; a high school art-class accident that almost cost her a foot when chemicals burned her, requiring two years of skin grafts. The writers rarely lifted any passages from Wettig’s life, but producer-writer Richard Kramer says they regarded the cancer scripts as ”letters” to her.
Wettig gave Nancy a voice strained through gritted teeth, her humor painfully provocative. When the publication of her book coincided with her diagnosis, Nancy said it ”gives new meaning to the words publish or perish.” When her gynecologist dismissed her concerns about her damaged sexuality, Nancy hissed, ”Don’t tell me what I’m feeling.” When she joined a cancer support group, she flirted with the allure of death, sitting at the end of a runway and taunting jets overhead. ”They can take away your body and your pride but at least the disease is mine! The cancer belongs to me!” she screamed into the engines’ roar. Though the lines seem melodramatic on the page, Wettig’s conviction gave them gravity on screen.
”Patty is inseparable from where these stories went,” Kramer says, but Wettig quickly acknowledges she didn’t do it alone. She felt especially comfortable with her husband directing. Last season, Olin asked to do the third cancer episode, when Nancy defiantly backed away from family and friends. This season, he was asked to do two more. ”We’ve been collaborating on our lives for the past nine years,” Olin says. ”I know the things that move her. She trusts me implicitly and because of that it’s easier for her to take certain risks. She knows I won’t let her do something in a way that would be outside her taste. She takes risks, just jumps off.”
Wettig also got help from everyone on the set, from Luke Rossi (who plays her vulnerable son, Ethan) and Timothy Busfield (her husband, Elliot) to hairstylist Carol Pershing, who created her balding wig from a mold of Wettig’s head. ”I looked in the mirror, and I thought I looked like my great-grandmother,” the actress says. ”That’s the right exact present to be given as an actress.”
For all the acclaim they have since received, the cancer episodes had a difficult time getting on the air. A number of network naysayers predicted that unleashing a bad cell in Nancy would be ratings hara-kiri, an ominous possibility for a show that is one of ABC’s biggest prime-time money-makers. Even the program’s writers were initially opposed: They staged what producer-writer Joseph Dougherty calls a verbal version of ”a large fist fight” when they learned that executive producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz had decided on the plot line. ”I wrote a memo,” he recalls. ”I said that death is a big-ass sonofab—-, and he’s not going to settle for being a subplot. He wants it all.”
Death didn’t get it all. The cancer cycle proved to be about a number of other matters as well, including sibling rivalry (”You think she’d be nice to me if I got cancer?” Nancy’s sister asked about their mother); sexuality (Nancy fantasized about a ponytailed lover); and painful frankness (”I don’t know,” Nancy said when son Ethan asked if she was going to die. ”I don’t think so, but I don’t know”). The mandate was always to make it as real as possible. Just before the very first cancer episode was filmed, Kramer changed the ending. In the original, Ethan forgave Nancy for not telling him she was sick. ”I said to Ed and Marshall, ‘This is bulls— because it’s reassuring,”’ Kramer recalls. ”And I don’t know if we want to start this cycle off with a precedent of huggy endings.” In his revised ending, an enraged Nancy confronts her husband, Elliot, for confiding the news to their friend Michael. The scene ended with Elliot restraining Nancy, who looked up at him and said, ”F— me” — although on prime-time it aired as ”Make love to me, Elliot.”
The cycle has drawn high praise from those who deal with cancer every day. ”In most pieces of entertainment, when a person coughs, you know he’s off the show,” says Harold Benjamin, head of the Wellness Community, whose sessions Wettig attended. ”But this is as it is in real life.”
The community, which Benjamin started in 1982, has helped more than 14,000 cancer patients, including Radner (whose 1989 memoir, It’s Always Something, helped inspire Wettig). The group’s philosophy is that a patient can enhance his or her life by participating in, not submitting to, treatment, and its meetings are emotional: Wettig was often so overwhelmed by the confessions of hope and despair that she had to leave. The show’s writers also attended meetings, as did Olin; he recalls one wide-ranging discussion in which one patient joked about losing his hair and another talked of giving up.
Now that cancer will be only a memory for Nancy, Wettig is looking forward to new material. Every time a funny line comes her way in a thirtysomething script, she rejoices. ”Look at Nancy,” Olin told his wife at a read-through for one upcoming episode. ”From chemo to comedy.”
Wettig’s work on the show has already won her awards: Last year, she won the Best Dramatic Actress Emmy; in 1988, she was named Best Supporting Actress; and last month, she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a drama series. The part has also brought her roles in major movies: This year, she will appear in the McCarthy-era drama Guilty by Suspicion with Robert De Niro and the adventure-comedy City Slickers with Billy Crystal.
But the greatest reward, she says, is the gratitude of people like her thirtysomething makeup man, Nick Pagliaro, whose mother has had breast cancer. ”Somebody told me the other day, ‘Oh, you won a Golden Globe,’ and that’s great,” Wettig says. ”And it’s not that I don’t like winning those things. Those are fun. Those are like putting on a hat. But when people relate in that deepest way to what I’ve done, that’s the stuff that feeds my soul.”