December 14, 2000
Loving “Life” ‘s Lessons
Sometimes life just isn't what it seems. Stumble onto "That's Life," CBS's new slice-of-life dramedy, and you'll realize that this notion extends far beyond the predicaments within each episode. After all, this is a show centered around an Italian-American Jersey girl played by an actress with an Anglo-sounding name who happens to be Jewish.
"We're the WASPiest sounding Jews," said Heather Paige Kent of her family name, before pointing out that her grandfather was named Herbert Peter and her "nice Jewish doctor" husband, a prominent plastic surgeon, is Dr. Terry Dubrow. The name thing has even confused some of the couple's friends.
"The other night, we were out to dinner with some acquaintances," Kent said, "and they asked us how are we going to raise the kids, and we're like, 'We're both Jewish.' "
On "That's Life" (no connection to the Blake Edwards film), Kent portrays 32-year-old Lydia DeLucca, a determined woman who, to the chagrin of her family, decides to go to college following a traumatic break-up with her traditional, controlling fiancé Lou (Sonny Marinelli).
At the heart of the show is Lydia's constant search for independence, while struggling to emerge from the morass of culturally codified family expectations and her own ambivalent emotions. Complications arise, since the DeLucca family is still close to Lydia's ex.
Kent, an attractive Bronx-born brunette loaded with charm and New York wit, discussed with Up Front the complexities of transcending stereotypes on her ethnic-flavored, freshman-year program from the patio of her Newport Beach residence.
"We always joke, 'There's a fine line between Italian and Jew,' " said Kent, who finds some nonpejorative truth to the old platitude. "There's food and family -- that's just true. There's a strong family base in both of these cultures," continued Kent, whose own family has Ashkenazi roots in Austria, Hungary and Poland. The arrival of "That's Life" couldn't come at a better time, rescuing the 31-year-old actress from the purgatory of failed "Must See TV" sitcoms with adjective-laden, three-word titles ("Men Behaving Badly," "Stark Raving Mad"). Ecstatic was Kent's initial reaction when she got word that top-flight veterans such as Ellen Burstyn, Paul Sorvino, Debi Mazar, and Kevin Dillon were being cast as her character's parents, pal, and brother, respectively. However, as the pilot shoot approached, Kent's anxiety set in.
"I cried the whole week before we started the show," said Kent, who has since grown very comfortable with her stellar supporting cast.
Kent said she has tried to to infuse her character with subtle detail that might remain invisible to the casual watcher.
"It was very important that she remain very real," Kent said. "Some people have asked me, 'Doesn't she have another coat?' and I said, 'No.' She doesn't have access to the wardrobe at Paramount like Heather does. These things seem so insigificant, but, as a whole, it gives Lydia familiarity."
Raised in Chappaqua, N.Y., Kent grew up admiring Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand. She majored in musical theater at Syracuse University.
"Syracuse is such a big school," said Kent. "We used to go to Hillel to meet guys because we figured that their parents told them to go there to meet nice Jewish girls. Within this enormous school, we had a community. It was great going to temple and realizing that everyone in this room has something in common with you."
After college, Kent took what she called "a leap of faith" and moved out to L.A., where she had absolutely no friends or ties to showbiz. Through her twenties, Kent pursued music-related work to pay the bills, including stints in a 14-piece band and at Disneyland. Kent even went the distance for her role in "Funny Business," which Kent described as "Punchline: The Musical" (referring to the Tom Hanks-Sally Field dud), performing stand-up at comedy clubs in New York and L.A. Several sitcoms later, she has finally found her creative niche with "That's Life."
Whether Lydia and Lou will ever marry in a flurry of May sweeps matrimonial mayhem remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Kent is still in the throes of relishing her new role, as well as her own young marriage, deeming her June 1999 wedding as "the best day in my life."
"I have the best husband in the whole world," Kent said. "It's been a year-and-a-half and we're still talking to each other, so that's good. There's something great about him not being in the business, although he's a plastic surgeon, so in a way he is." "That's Life" airs on CBS on Saturdays at 8 p.m.