Rebecca Schaeffer — patient actress skips soap for bubbly `Sister Sam’ role

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
December 29, 1986

While many would-be actresses would jump at the chance of nabbing a three-year contract on a   television soap opera, Rebecca Schaeffer passed it up.

“If I give you the real reason why I didn’t take it, I’m going to sound so cocky,” Schaeffer said  during a break from  working on her role in “My Sister Sam,” a CBS sitcom that airs at 7:30 p.m. Mondays on WBBM-Channel 2. “But I got offered a role on `Loving’ within a couple of months after I had moved to New York. So I thought, if I got this so quickly, I might want to hold out for something that I really wanted to do.”

The waiting paid off for Schaeffer, who portrays Patti Russell to Pam Dawber’s Samantha Russell on “My Sister Sam.”

Schaeffer, 19, got her start in show business five years ago, when she began modeling in her hometown of Eugene, Ore. A representative from Elite modeling discovered her three years ago  and took her to New York. Shortly afterward, she signed with a theatrical agent and appeared in the daytime dramas “One Life To Live” and “Guiding Light” and a made-for-TV movie, “Quarterback Princess.”

To many unemployed actors, Schaeffer admitted, her path to stardom must seem rather short.

“I came to New York to model, so acting was a bonus at that point,” she said. “There were a lot of roles I didn’t get, but I didn’t let anything that I didn’t get get me down. I just kept going and trying. I also never thought of it as hard work. Auditioning and getting rejected was a means to getting a part eventually.”

That’s how she nabbed a role in  Woody Allen’s next film, tentatively titled “Radio Days.”

While appearing on “One Life To Live,” Schaeffer had auditioned for “The Manhattan Project” but didn’t get the part. But the casting director was impressed enough to ask Schaeffer to audition for Allen.

“In the movie, I play a communist sexpot,” Schaeffer said.  “It’s in the 1940s and I play a 19-year-old daughter of a communist American who lives in Queens. We’re an outlandish family. I have a black folksinger boyfriend, which in the 1940s was, like, outrageous, and I cause some controversy when I’m caught on the porch with him, kissing. It was a lot of fun to work on ’cause it was such a parody. My character’s very different from the girl I play on the series, so I’m very lucky. I don’t think I’ll get typecast.”

On “My Sister Sam,” Schaeffer’s Patti is a goofy 16-year-old who disrupts her sister’s orderly life. Schaeffer is far more serious than Patti.

The only child of a psychologist and a writer, Schaeffer excelled at school and had plans to become a doctor or a lawyer. She participated in school plays but had no illusions about becoming an actress.

“I thought I’d be a good daughter and go to college and get a real profession,” Schaeffer said with a laugh.”But after I started modeling, I decided I’d been going in the wrong direction and rethought my plans for the future. I never considered myself a full-fledged model. I was always too short, always too fat. I’m 5-foot-7 and, like a lot of people, I’m critical about my weight. But magazines wanted to use me, so it was a good start for me.”

Today, Schaeffer lives alone in Los Angeles and spends her spare time dancing in her kitchen and practicing yoga. Most of her time, though, is spent in the studio with Dawber and the other regulars on “My Sister Sam.”

“When I got back from a vacation recently, I called up Pam just to say hi and see how she was,” Schaeffer said. “She said her hiatus was nice, but that she was looking forward to getting back to her other family – us. I think that’s representative of how we all feel on the show.”

Given the chance, Schaeffer said, she would love to do a Shakespearean play. Though she hasn’t done any theater outside of high school productions, Schaeffer said she always had assumed she would work in film or theater.

“I never really thought I’d be doing television,” she said. “But when this part came up, it was just too good to be true. I’ve still got a lot of time to fulfill my other dreams. I’m just happy that I’m working on a really good show with people I respect and care for.”

Comments (3)

  1. sally says:

    What a tragedy.

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