US | December 1998
An intriguing marriage, two children and a new attitude have warmed the cool beauty’s heart
By Nancy Collins | Photograph by Mark Seliger
And God created Michelle Pfeiffer: wife of TV magnate David E. Kelley, mother of Claudia Rose and John Henry, and presumed “ice princess” who has officially thawed out
Michelle Pfeiffer has lost her cool. Twenty short minutes ago, she breezed into one of the plush suites of Shutters on the Beach, a discreet, upscale hotel inSanta Monica,Calif.Having just wrapped a high-profile photo shoot—her makeup flawless—she cozied down into one of the room’s deep ivory couches. She was serenity incarnate. Not even the sun—streaming in through the suite’s sliding glass doors, illuminating a face that has seduced many audience—could resist her aura.
And then her fingers wandered over to the right side of her white jersey T-shirt and she felt it: the tag. It was there. It was blue and fraying. It was telling her that her shirt was on inside out. She let out a war whoop of surprise. “Oh, my God!” she screamed, then laughed as she leapt up and rushed into the adjoining bedroom to correct the sartorial offense.
This is the Michelle Pfeiffer you don’t usually see when the cameras are rolling. Over the years, she has gained a reputation for being a cool, mysterious, seemingly melancholy beauty. It’s an image fueled by the eclectic roles she has chosen: the enigmatic Countess Olenska in The Age of Innocence, the repressed bar owner in Tequila Sunrise, the discontented chanteuse in The Fabulous Baker Boys, the much-abused secretary turned kinky Catwoman in Batman Returns, the angry daughter in A Thousand Acres.
Yet, Pfeiffer finds the public’s preconceived notion of her puzzling. “When people say I’m distant and aloof, I just don’t understand it,” she says, her head shaking, “because my feelings get hurt all the time. Every day.”
Musing about this misrepresentation, Pfeiffer, whose now-right-side-out-T-shirt is complemented by deep blue denims rolled in fat cuffs, kicks off her Japanese thongs and puts her feet back up on the sofa. Hardly the pose of an ice queen. “Actually, I’m forever naïve, always shocked and surprised at everything around me,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where you travel, who you meet, what you read, how sophisticated you are; there is an innate innocence that, if you have it, you never lose. I’m always expecting people to be good—and shocked at how bad they can be.”
Pfeiffer is a bit of a surprise herself these days. Famously shy, self-protective and skittish about talking to the press, the actress whom even her good friend Cher once described as “almost impossible to get close to” has not only loosened up but is warm and surprisingly funny. “I am more relaxed,” she says. “A lot of it is getting older; a lot of it is therapy; and a lot of it is my family.” Particularly her marriage, five years ago, to television’s most prolific writer-producer, David E. Kelley, 42, the Princeton-educated lawyer who created Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice and the most notorious working girl since Helen Gurley Brown, Ally McBeal (and who recently signed a $30 million writing-and-producing package with 20th Century Fox Television). “Our relationship is pretty constant,” says Pfeiffer. “It just gets better and better. I do find her still surprises me in really good ways.”
The “getting older” part happened in April 1997 when Pfeiffer turned 40. “How did I feel about it?” she says. “Not good.” She laughs. “Depends on the cinematographer I’m using. I loved my 30s, especially the second half. And it’s not normal for people to have to see their face all the time, to go through photo proofs and get out a magnifying glass to see how you look. Society is so much more unforgiving on women.”
From the outside, Pfeiffer’s life seems to have been a charmed affair. The supermarket checkout girl from blue-collar suburbanOrange County,Calif., decided one day while “some lady was bitching about her cantaloupes” that she wanted to become an actress—and then did so. And on her own terms, eschewing theHollywoodgame and winning on talent instead. And on determination and courage. “I had no interest in socializing that way,” she says of the industry fame mill of openings, premieres, parties and publicity. “That, coupled with an intense discomfort with crowds and being in the spotlight, kept me out of it. Perhaps if I didn’t have so much anxiety about it, I might have been pressured into being in the public eye even more.”
Instead, Pfeiffer approached fame the old-fashioned way: by moving to Los Angeles and taking the requisite acting lessons, then slogging through a series of potentially ego-deflating projects (the short-lived 1979 series Delta House, 1982’s Grease 2), before plunging into the deep end (starring opposite Al Pacino in 1983’s Scarface and Jack Nicholson in 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick).
“People used to always tell me, ‘You’re so brave,’” Pfeiffer says. “But a lot of my bravery came out of naivete.
I just don’t know. I’d dive into situations—‘Oh, I want to do this!’—and then I’d think, oh, s—! I did that all the time; and because I have a sink-or-swim mentality, I always managed to swim. But at the end of the day, I lived a lot of my life in fear.”
She still does. Only, nowadays her fears are focused on something far more important than her career: her husband and their two children, 5-year-old Claudia Rose and 4-year-old John Henry.
Pfeiffer had been well on her way to becoming a mother before she even met Kelley. “I had spent more than a third of my life being independent and leading this narcissistic existence where everything was about me,” she says. “I couldn’t take it anymore.” In the spring of 1992, shortly after she split from her long-term boyfriend, actor Fisher Stevens, she began adoption proceedings for a biracial baby, Claudia Rose. “I specified that that was what I wanted,” says Pfeiffer. “I can’t really explain why.”
“I think she wanted to make sure that she adopted a child who was going to be hard to place,” surmises Pfeiffer’s sister, Dedee, 34, one of the stars of the WB series For Your Love. “When Claudia fell from heaven, she landed in the arms of a family who needed her, though none of us knew it at the time. When she came, all the family’s problems were suddenly gone; they just went away.”
“Having children opened me up,” says Pfeiffer, who took Claudia Rose home with her in 1993. “You shift your priorities, and all those protective instincts you have shift away from yourself onto your children. There isn’t any room to guard yourself. What I do have now that I never did before is a fear fro my own physical safety, the idea that my kids might be deprived of their mother. I used to jump on planes and never think about it. Now I do.”
But then, Pfeiffer has never been rash—either in her career or in love. Her first marriage—at age 22—to actor Peter Horton (thirtysomething) lasted eight years. The two are still friends. Ditto for Fisher Stevens (Early Edition), with whom she spent three years before meeting Kelley on what turned out to be a near-disastrous blind date. “We got off to a rocky start,” says Pfeiffer, who agreed to go bowling with the never-married Kelley at the insistence of her best friend and producing partner, Kate Guinzburg. “I thought he was attractive,” recalls Pfeiffer, “but that was almost a detriment at that point. I wasn’t into cute. Fortunately, he had a couple of good scars on his face, and he had broken his nose once, from playing hockey; so that got me through.” The bigger problem, she adds, was conversation: “He was so quiet. We were both real quiet. We really had to work at making conversation, because we’re so much alike that way. In fact, when his agent heard we were dating, he asked David, ‘What’s she like? And when he said. ‘She’s real quiet,’ his agent said, ‘Then who talks?’
A month into the relationship, however, they were chatting on phone when her feeling kicked in. “We were talking about nothing, really,” Pfeiffer says. “I can’t even remember the conversation, but I looked at the clock and we’d been talking for an hour. I didn’t realize we’d been on that long. Maybe we felt safer with this instrument between us., but I thought, this is interesting. And pretty soon after that, I became very interested.” (Pfeiffer insists, however, that Kelley fell in love with Claudia Rose before he fell in love with her.) “I’m not the most trusting person,” she says, “so even then it took me a while to trust whether this would work. And David took things very slowly. We both did. As you get older, you come with more baggage. I kept saying, ‘This guy can’t be this great.’ I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
But it didn’t. After dating for less than a year, Pfeiffer and Kelley were married inLos Angelesin late1993 inan intimate ceremony during which Claudia Rose was also christened. Seven months later, by the time the couple were able to take their honeymoon in theFijiIslands(with Claudia Rose in tow), Pfeiffer was already seven months pregnant with John Henry.
“They absolutely adore each other, and that alone is pretty powerful,” says Dedee. “Since David has come into her life, she’s a lot more relaxed. She’s finally at peace. Everything is finally just right.”
“David is so unlike anyone I’ve ever known, personalitywise,” Pfeiffer says of her husband, who has kept strict 9-to-6 office hours since becoming a family man (and who writes painlessly and on command—“His favorite thing is closing the door to his office and just writing the shows”). “This will piss off a lot of people,” she adds, “but he was the healthiest person I’ve ever dated. He wasn’t an actor. Now, I love actors—they’re charming and smart—but they’re also complicated and come with a lot of demons.”
Indeed, Kelley’s upbringing was nothing short of Norman Rockwell. The son of Jack, retired hockey coach who is in the American Hockey Hall of Fame, and his wife, Ginny, an avid golfer, Kelley was a quiet kid who grew up in a series of small Massachusetts towns. In 1979, he graduated from his father’s alma mater, Princeton, where he was captain of the hockey team; he then went on to BostonUniversityLawSchool, during which time he lived with his grandmother Mildred Kelley. He was litigating minor criminal cases during the mid-‘80s for a Bostonlaw firm when he started writing scripts for L.A. Laws.
Pfeiffer was especially drawn to her husband’s traditional upbringing. “I couldn’t believe that David got along well with his parents,” she says, ‘What do you mean, you have no issues with your parents?’ I thought, either this guy is lying or he’s in terrible denial. Then I met his parents, and it made total sense. They were the most wonderful people.”
PFEIFFER’S FAMILY ARE CLOSE. IN THEIR OWN way. “Sometimes we’re too close and get into each other’s business,” she says of her siblings. “Like Claudia and John. They’re so in love with each other that they’re either totally enamored or fighting like crazy. Some way or the other, we’re always estranged or I’m not talking to somebody. But that’s how families are. Especially close ones.”
Pfeiffer grew up the second of four children inMidway City,Calif., where her father, Dick, ran his own electrical and air-conditioning business. Her mother, Donna, a housewife, was “very kind and very gentle,” says Pfeiffer, who nevertheless didn’t hesitate to test her mom’s mettle. As a teenager, the future actress was rebellious and strong-willed—skipping school in favor of the beach, earning a reputation at home as the “drama queen.” She did, however, graduate fromFountain Valleyhigh School in three years with honors. She subsequently dropped out after one year atGoldenWestCollegeinHuntington Beach,Calif.“My mother encouraged me to live on my own, to have a career,” says Pfeiffer. “She said, ‘I never had one. I want you to.’ She saw the wisdom in that.”
Dick Pfeiffer was a tougher sell. And still is. Asked what her father has to say about that amazing outcome of her life, Pfeiffer laughs. “He still hasn’t told me,” she says. “My father’s funny. I won’t even know he’s gone to see my movies until I hear it through my sisters.
“But then—and it’s always been this way—he’ll do something when I least expect it,” Pfeiffer adds. She mention 1995’s Dangerous Minds, a movie she produced and starred in, playing an ex-Marine who teaches minority kids in the ghetto—it was No.1 at the box office its opening weekend. “It took such a long time to finish Dangerous Minds, get it to where it was a releasable movie, that I didn’t have a whole lot of objectivity about it,” she says. “When we screened it for audiences, they loved it. But the critics killed us—which I wasn’t expecting. I felt they’d at least acknowledge our attempt to be about something. When it opened, I was on vacation, and everyone in the house went to the opening expect me, because I was crying. I said, ‘I just cannot go.’ Afterward, my dad called to tell me the audience loved it. I was so down, so down I didn’t think it would make any difference. But he said, ‘No. You wait until after this weekend. I have a feeling about this one. It’s going to make it.’ And he was right.” (Indeed, the film surprised even the folks at Disney, grossing a total of more than $85 million.)
Recently, Pfeiffer’s 65-year-old father took seriously ill with cancer, and it brought his four children—Michelle, her older brother, Rick (also on the air-conditioning business), and her two sisters, Lori, a model, and Dedee—to his hospital bedside. “He’s going to be OK,” says Pfeiffer. “He’s very strong.” She pauses. “It’s funny, you know it is going to happen someday, that your parents are going to get sick, and yet you’re never ready.
“I find myself talking more and more to my friends about getting old,” she continues. “Recently, I was speaking with one whose sister had just died. I was blue—my dad was sick—and so was [the friend]. He said, ‘When you’re younger, you say to yourself, ‘This too shall pass.’ And he was right. You go through the worst times—can’t get out of bed, but you do—and you get better, have a life again. Now things are final in a way that they weren’t when we were younger.”
THE MATURING OF MICHELLE PFEIFFER IS reflected in her more recent movie roles—most of which, unsurprisingly, revolve around the issue of family. She played a single working mother opposite George Clooney in 1996’s One Fine Day, and this month she is the voice of Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, in DreamWorks’ long-awaited animated project The Prince of Egypt. “It occurred to me that the Bible had never been done in an animated way before,” Pfeiffer says. “They showed me a 10-minute demo years ago, and I cried, it was so moving. I’m very proud to be a part of it.” Also on tap is The Deep End of the Ocean, the fourth film to spring from Via Rosa, the production company Pfeiffer runs with Kate Guinzburg. Based on the best seller by Jacquelyn Mitchard, the film depicts a mother’s devastation after her 3-year-old son disappears from a hotel lobby.
It’s not just the types of roles Pfeiffer is choosing but the way in which she is approaching them that is perhaps most revealing. “I’m not afraid to make a fool of myself anymore,” she says with a laugh. “Now my work is all over the place. It’s both better and more flawed. I’m disappointed a lot, but I’m also more surprised. Because it’s not everything to me, because the stakes aren’t so high, I can risk it. Recently, however, I had to go away to work for 10 days—the longest I’ve even been away from my children. And I only worked—focused entirely on my acting. And I found I’d actually missed that part of it.”
For the moment, Pfeiffer is also missing out on something she has been eager to do: direct. “If I didn’t have children, I’d probably be doing it right now,” she says. “But I can’t, because it’s such a hard job that I’d be overwhelmed by it. Producing and acting is hard enough, because the producer and actor are always in conflict. I’m first and foremost an actor, and the director has to be concerned with the best interests of the movie. If that means you need the actors to stay for 16 hours to get what you need for the movie, the actress in me says, ‘Well, first I’m a mother, then I’m an actress. When I’m here, I’ll give you my all. When I get home, I’m going to be with my kids.’”
PFEIFFER IS NOT A WALKING CLICHÉ OF A Hollywood-star mother. She does not leave her children with a live-in nanny while she circles the globe making movies. She is hands-on, shuttling the kids from the family’s home on the west side ofL.A.to school, the park or the zoo and taking them to the set with her whenever possible. On this particular day, she has been up since 5:30, organizing the children’s day. It’s only now, late in the afternoon, that she realizes she hasn’t even eaten lunch; so she orders up an oversize hamburger and French fries from room services. But her thoughts, like most mothers’, are never far from her kids.
“John is such a little philosopher,” Pfeiffer says of her blond, blue-eyes boy. “The other say, he said to me, ‘God makes children, and man makes grown-ups.’ And they’re both asking all those questions—‘Why did God make car wrecks?’—that are unanswerable. And I think, when do you stop caring about the answers to those questions? I remember how important they used to be to me; and the, at some point, in day-to-day living, you just start accepting now knowing.”
Pfeiffer washed down a french fry with a swig of Diet Coke, then happily tells of John’s mental exploits. “The other morning,” she says, “he told me, ‘I had a dream and saw a hole; and when I looked through it, I saw heaven. Then I saw a mouse and got scared.’” She smiles. “’And you were there.’”
Pfeiffer says she sees herself in her daughter. “She’s a tomboy,” she says, sounding nostalgic for the days when she too was a rough-houser. “She’s not a foofer. She likes some girly things and plays with dolls, but she really loves being outdoors and climbing.” For questions concerning her daughter’s lineage, Pfeiffer is getting prepared, “She’s a little young, but she understands what she can. She knows she’s adopted. And she’s getting more and more curious. She’s asking those questions. At first you live in fear [of them], but now I kind of look forward to them.”
There’s another topic that looms, one that Pfeiffer will soon have to explain to both children: the powerful positions that she and her husband occupy in the entertainment business. “They know that Daddy writes movies [To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday] and shows and that I put on costumes and wigs and say the words,” she says. “I chose not to show them my work, because kids under age 5 spend a lot of their day trying to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Once, I showed Claudia, who loves music, the Dangerous Minds video that I did with Coolio. Onscreen I disappeared at the end, and she burst into hysterics with me sitting right there. I realized how powerful these images are.
“You want them to have their childhood,” she continues. “You want to raise them to be decent people; and at the same time, you’re wondering if you’re doing them a disservice, if they’ll survive. Can you overprotect them? You don’t want them to make the same mistakes you did. I want Claudia to have what I didn’t.”
Just what that might be is difficult to imagine. Although Pfeiffer has worked hard for it, her life is in many respects a modern-day fairy tale—a reality that stuck home only the evening before. She and her husband were at the Los Angeles Museum of Television and Radio, where Kelley was being honored. “I got all dressed up to go to this wonderful event,” Pfeiffer says, “and my kids were laughing at me. ‘Ooh, you look so ugly!’” She chuckles. “Anyway, at the museum, it was all so surreal, because David is so unaffected about everything. Our lives are so simple. He gets awarded a lot, but this particular evening it really hit me—where I was, the people I was with, the man I was married to.” She smiles, looking more like the checkout girl fromOrangeCountythan aHollywoodwife, mother and star. Then she confesses, “I was a bit overwhelmed by it all.”