Valerie Bertinelli: Made for TV -- She's got the ratings and the Van Halen husband, now she wants some respect


Valerie Bertinelli’s got the round, clear face of Maybelline, the long, shiny hair of Prell, the white, bright smile of Crest. She’s every young mother in stretch leggings and a denim overshirt who sometimes feels dumpy and sometimes feels blue and sometimes feels stressed when her hubby’s on the road and her baby son wakes her at 6 a.m. every day.

She’s every ripe-shaped, girl-faced woman who loves football, hates dieting, listens to rock, and feels she ought to go back to work, although really she’d be happy to stay at home and play with her kid and let her husband support her. She could be your daughter, your sister, your girlfriend, that cute young wife down the block who looks so hot when she dolls herself up. She looks closer to 21 than 31. She’s clean-sexy, perky-determined, open-pretty. She’s Redbook meets Rolling Stone. She’s light beer in a Flintstones tumbler. Valerie Bertinelli is Made in the USA. She’s the soul of mall America.

This is a compliment. For 16 years, ever since she was 15 and slid, with just a couple of TV commercials on her credit sheet, into the role of Barbara Cooper, Bonnie Franklin’s keen-teen daughter on CBS’ One Day at a Time as easily as a high school girl scoots into a pair of Levi’s, Bertinelli has prevailed as one of America’s sturdiest actresses on network TV — the medium of malls and moms. In fact, she is the prevailing made-for-TV actress at work today. As a result, America feels comfy with Valerie — our Mouseketeer, our homegirl, our family-hour fantasy who grew up before our eyes and married that nice rock star, Eddie Van Halen, and braved a thousand tabloid headlines (marital battles! weight battles!) to get where she is today. As a result, she has drummed up a booming little specialty for herself in made-for-network-TV movies, starring in nearly one a year beginning with Young Love, First Love in 1979. As a result, she is a rich young woman.

This, too, reflects all-American savvy — the savvy of Bertinelli, her advisers, and CBS, which has been the Bertinelli network year after year, showcasing her in the satisfyingly pulpy stories of kidnapped children and rapists’ sisters-in-law and straying nuns that traditionally feed the maw of sweeps weeks. Bertinelli’s most recent miniseries was last November’s In a Child’s Name, about a husband who murders his wife and the battle fought by the dead woman’s sister to adopt the couple’s son (”based on a true story”); the second of its two parts was tops for the week, beating even Roseanne and 60 Minutes.

Now, in a switch, it’s NBC that is counting on Val, pitting her on Feb. 23 against the closing Olympics events on her old home network. Her vehicle this time is a two-hour TV movie, What She Doesn’t Know, about a cop’s daughter with a fancy law degree whose investigation into police corruption leads her home, and it costars George Dzundza, late of Law & Order, who wears a new badge as her pop.

In Olympics terms, NBC is banking on Bertinelli to win the Sunday gold. But at her home on a balmy Southern California afternoon three weeks before air date, Bertinelli is far less interested in TV ratings or the sociological impact of the miniseries as a barometer of our national consciousness than she is in her nanny search. Her small, round, smiling, dark-haired son, Wolfgang (who, she says, was named partly for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and partly for the awesome sound of Wolfgang Van Halen) is 11 months old and on the teetery verge of walking. And Bertinelli can call upon her daytime housekeeper and on her mother, Nancy, only so much to look after Wolfie if she has something else to do. Like an interview.

”Ma? Ma!” Valerie shouts into the upper reaches of the house she and Ed moved into just a year ago. Her voice echoes in the vaulted foyer; the place still has the spare, unscuffed feeling of newness, of objects dwarfed by the vast dimensions of the place. It’s a Disney fantasy of a house on a Hollywood hill — French Normandy meets Family Circle, with a pool table and a jukebox and a grand piano and a minisize Les Paul guitar sitting around waiting for Wolfgang’s tiny, chubby fingers. Wolfie wobbles happily around the family room, a cozily carpeted place with a fire graciously blazing in the fireplace even though it’s 70 degrees outside.

”Ma, can you watch Wolfie for a sec?” Bertinelli scoops up her son in a gale of giggles — she’s truly, clearly nuts about the boy, happy in motherhood, and talking of having a second child — and delivers him upstairs to his grandmother. Valerie was born in Delaware, but grew up, the second of four children, in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Michigan before her dad, a former GM exec, settled the brood in California. The Bertinelli seniors usually live at the Bertinelli-Van Halen beach house in Malibu. But that place is in the process of being renovated and besides, Andy Bertinelli has been spending a lot of time in Europe working as a materials supervisor on the tunnel connecting England and France. So Nancy Bertinelli has been staying with her only daughter while Ed is with his band, Van Halen, on tour for their album, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (get it?). It’ll be a couple of weeks before Valerie and Ed and Wolfie will be reunited — this time in Chicago, where mother and son will fly to meet Rock Daddy.

Child-free, she plops down on a big, loungy, L-shaped banquette. Then leaps up to get some water. Then plops again, then leaps. Jumpy. Bouncy. With an inhaler for asthma never far out of reach. On TV, Bertinelli often plays plucky, as in Rockabye, or feisty, as in Child’s Name. She’s been teary-pious in Shattered Vows and attempted funny in the short-lived 1990 CBS sitcom Sydney, in which she played a private detective. She’s even been rich-bitchy, as in her eight-hour marathon as Maxi Amberville in Judith Krantz’s I’ll Take Manhattan in 1987.

But in her jumbo den, surrounded by a gallery of framed family photos, Valerie Bertinelli is…insecure. Remarkably, insistently, determinedly, touchingly insecure. About her looks (”I feel ugly!”). About her weight (”I’ve got to lose 10 pounds before I have another baby!”). About her profession and her good fortune and her place in the universe.

”The first year of (doing One Day at a Time), ” she says, ”I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I mean, I didn’t even know why I was doing what I was doing. I had no idea why I got into this business, but I’m still in it. And I still don’t know why. I never pictured my life the way it is. And yet, I can’t picture it differently.”

This comes out slowly: At first she describes herself as ”perky. I guess I just try to find the humor and the good in everything, even when I’m feeling like crap and feeling like the world’s against me.”

Who’s against her? ”Oh, there are people out there.”

Then this comes out: ”I have such guilt about being lucky that it’s ridiculous. I always hate complaining about anything because if you look at this life I have, anybody else would want it. But the other day I was just sitting in a chair crying hysterically because I just felt so ugly and I didn’t have a nanny and my whole life was, like, this stupid thing and I felt like nothing.”

And finally this comes out: ”I used to think I had to prove something to other people. People are going to have this image of you anyhow. Sometimes people might forget that I’m 31. I’m 31!…I wish people wouldn’t categorize actors as being TV actors or feature-film actors. (Movie directors) won’t see me. I’m not worth seeing because they’ve categorized me. And I don’t think that’s fair.”

This is it: The dark heart of Valerie Bertinelli is not about marriage to a 35-year-old rock musician who made headlines in 1990 for his battles with a drug and alcohol problem, a guy who’s on the road much more than he’s at home. It’s not about the tab stories that have screamed about tensions between ) Bertinelli and Van Halen almost from the moment they were married in 1981. She insists, by the way, that there are none, and that she talks to her husband every day when he’s on the road. ”I see all these magazines about hot couples of the moment and we’re never in them. So it’s like, well, they’re totally bored with us by now.” (And maybe there are no articles because Eddie is notoriously closemouthed about the marriage; he wouldn’t comment for this story.)

No, the dark heart of Valerie Bertinelli is about…what the Valerie Bertinelli made-in-the-USA product is. She’s a made-for-TV actress. She has not been able to break into feature films. And this stings like a rebuff and stirs up all that is shaky in a young woman.

She tried hard, harder, hardest a few years back, pushed by her longtime manager, Jack Grossbart, 43, who has shaped her career from the time she was still a sitcom princess. She made the also-ran list for The Big Chill (Meg Tilly got the role) and Footloose (the winner was Lori Singer). She made one feature in 1985, Ordinary Heroes, costarring Richard Dean Anderson. She feels rejected.

”I finally decided I’m not going to prove anything to these producers. They have their own set thing in their mind. And so I’ll never be in a Scorsese movie or an Oliver Stone movie because they’ll never be able to picture me doing anything for them. But that’s their problem.”

Well, clearly not only theirs. Valerie Bertinelli has hit a kind of psychic wall. How far is she willing to go for that next feature-film step?

”I don’t want to work right now. I told Jack that I really don’t even want to think about working until after March or April.” She leaps up, sits down again, folds one leg under her, and plays with a small, single diamond on a delicate chain around her neck. She had to be convinced to do Child’s Name, she says; her baby was five months old and she was still breast-feeding and she didn’t want to stop but she knew she’d have to in order to lose weight for the part and…well, it turned out okay.

She’d rather stay home and play with Wolfie, she says, although she makes noises about a possible new series with CBS. She’d rather play racquetball in her spanking-new indoor court or work out with her trainer in her ultraequipped home gym. She’d rather be less harsh on herself. Anyhow, it’s time for Wolfie’s dinner; his grandmother, a pleasant, smiling woman with short blond hair, pads into the kitchen carrying the baby. ”Oh, I have such a gorgeous little boy!” Bertinelli coos happily as grandma puts grandson in his Sassy seat at the kitchen table. ”Yes, you are. Yes, you ARE!” she burbles. The sun is setting on the hills and on the frame of the new garage-slash-guesthouse the Bertinelli-Van Halens are building to house a nanny as well as Ed’s extensive automobile collection.

In a couple of hours, Valerie will give the baby his bath and put him to bed. And then she’ll crawl into bed herself — intending to read a few pages of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat, perhaps, but probably conking out by 9 p.m. Just like any other mom in anywhere USA. Just like our Val.