''Cheers'' and ''Pearl'' make her seem tough, but in reality Perlman is unexpectedly elegant

Coax her long enough, and Rhea Perlman will dish the dirt on that Cheers cast member nobody liked. She’ll glance around to make sure no one can hear, then tell you all about it. For a split second, it’s as if you’re back at that Boston bar listening to the sniping of Carla Tortelli, the prickly barmaid she played for 11 years, rather than outside a Pasadena cafe with the unexpectedly elegant actress.

Don’t be fooled. This isn’t Carla; it’s not even Pearl Caraldo, the middle-aged, working-class college student she plays in her new CBS sitcom, Pearl. On TV, Perlman specializes in scrappy, tough-talking roles, playing women she calls ”bitter little things.” In real life, however, she is instantly contrite upon letting slip anything negative about a former colleague. ”Don’t print any names,” she says, laughing nervously. ”I never would have said anything if you hadn’t asked.”

What a disappointment. Carla would gleefully name names; the nicer-though-still-feisty Pearl wouldn’t hesitate either when comeuppance is deserved. But Perlman, 48, a pretty, delicately featured, seemingly shy woman with a well-toned body (she does yoga five times a week) is hardly like her alter egos. ”Everyone’s surprised when they meet me,” she says. ”I guess it’s because I’ve played tough cookies for so long…. It’s what I do best. I’m not sure I could pull off a genteel Southern belle.”

Certainly, there were more toughs than belles in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn where Perlman grew up, the daughter of Phil, a manager at a doll-parts factory, and Adele, a bookkeeper. Her parents now live in L.A., and Perlman’s father was a frequent extra on Cheers (Rhea’s sister, Heidi Perlman, is a TV writer who worked on Cheers and The Tracey Ullman Show). Phil will be seen on Pearl, too, his daughter promises. ”He considers himself an actor now,” Rhea says. ”We created a monster.”

Before she was successful enough to get Dad acting gigs, Perlman had to escape Brooklyn. ”I went to Hunter College [in Manhattan, majoring in drama]. We couldn’t afford to send me away to school, but at least I was getting out of Brooklyn.” She left the outer boroughs permanently in 1970, not long after meeting Danny DeVito. Perlman spotted her future husband in an Off Off Broadway play called The Shrinking Bride. (”He played a demented stable boy who spoke in monosyllables. I found that very attractive.”) She and a girlfriend went out with DeVito after the show, and the two ”immediately hit it off.”

Two weeks later, she moved into his Manhattan studio, where she began domesticating him. ”He slept on the floor, and roaches would line up at attention around him. It’s like he was training them. He made a Super-8 short, following a roach around.” Perlman got him onto a bed and off of ”this weird macrobiotic diet. We started eating a lot of Entenmann’s cakes.” Nonetheless, the couple didn’t marry for another 11 years. ”We weren’t sure we wanted to settle down,” says Perlman. ”We were very much a part of [that] New York starving-actor scene.”