Laughing on the outside
Moving from television commercials to her own TV series is helping Julie Amato make the best of the worst of times
More than just another pretty face? You can bet on it! Julie Amato is a singer, dancer, actress and comedienne, all wrapped up in one package that could be called “dynamite” but is called “JULIE” ... It is a sophisticated, smooth and polished package of solid entertainment; CTV’S gift to the viewer and a showcase for Miss Amato’s extraordinary talent.—CTV publicity handout.
“It’s like a goldfish. You know, if you put a goldfish in a bowl, a little bowl, it will just get as big as the bowl allows him. I’m that kind oj person. If you put me in a big space. I’ll fill it up. I’m a space filler.”—Julie Amato.
If Julie Amato’s name is not yet all that familiar, the face and voice most certainly are. The face—brown eyes framed by dark blond hair—helped launch untold thousands of Black Labels for Carling in the old “Hey, Mabel” television commercials; she was the girl in the TV ads for Mazda cars a few years back and scores of others, including a currently running number in which she demonstrates how you can clean your carpet in a jiffy before the guests arrive. The voice—one admirer likens it to the auditory equivalent of feeling “soda water on your throat”—has been heard on numerous radio advertisements and TV voice-overs. She has also had a modest success as a television and stage actress. But it is the extent to which she has dominated TV and radio ads that has made the Americanborn performer something of a phenomenon in the Canadian media—and won her a shot at stardom.
On Tuesday, September 21, the first half-hour installment of JULIE went on the prime time air in yet another brave attempt by a Canadian network—in this case the privately owned CTV—to emulate the slick and costly music and comedy packages that are mounted so successfully, and with such mind-numbing monotony, south of the border. Naturally, the network brass insist that this time it’s going to work. “In my experience,” says Bill Hartley, the show’s producer and co-writer, “this is the first real-live, honest-to-God variety show produced in Canada. It has everything: comedy, music, production numbers, vignettes, and monologues . . . everything.”
Actually, JULIE may turn out not to have all that much going for it, save for the star herself. The level of humor is as likely to evoke groans as laughs (sample: “Would you like the valet to draw your bath?” “No, I’d rather have it photographed this time”), and the majority of the guest stars featured on the early installments are not exactly towering figures in the entertainment world (among them: comedian-impressionist Frank Gorshin; singer Liz Torres). Where CTV is obviously pinning its
hopes is on Amato, who talks as though she fully shared the network’s confidence. “1 don’t think 1 can really fail,” she confesses, “because the word is not in my life.” She is an accomplished singer, actress, comedienne—most of CTV’S hoopla is accurate enough (though Amato is the first to admit that dancing is the area in which she is least proficient). Her startling success in TV commercials has also demonstrated that the 31-year-old actress possesses a magnetic presence that appeals widely: the willowy, five-foot, six-inch figure is seductive but not flamboyantly so; the mouth is wide and forthright, the eyes intelligent, conveying somehow a suggestion of both boldness and reserve.
There is a suggestion, too, of some fibrous interior quality—perhaps of ambition burning with a hard, gemlike flame, or possibly an inner strength born of the pain that has invaded Amato’s life regularly, and recently. In July, just before she was due to begin taping her show in Montreal, Dominic Hogan, the witty and meditative Canadian actor she had lived with for six years, was stricken wilh a fatal heart attack. There were three choices, says the stillshaken actress: “I could have lain down and died with him. I could have become catatonic, or 1 could carry on.” In the best showbiz tradition, she chose, with difficulty, the third option. There was, she remembers, “the body shock of the whole thing, the death anxiety, the terror of having to come out of myself when 1 just wanted to run and hide in the wall somewhere. My body was sure it was going to
die. I just didn’t care about the show or anything ... I became a little zombie. 1 can’t explain it, there are no words. I couldn’t sleep. I would wake up every two hours. Nothing seemed to be what it was.” At Hogan’s funeral, however, she stood and sang Danny Boy in his memory.
The time is 11 a.m. on an overcast day in early September. The place is the chic downtown premises of Electa and Corrado, the improbably named pair of Montreal beauticians who apply facial makeup for most of the city’s top models. Amato is in town for a promotional effort that she is partly paying for herself. Her aim, and that of Electa and Corrado, designer John Warden, who does
her clothes for television, and her hairdressers—Montreal’s La Coupe—is to land photographs in glossy international fashion journals such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Recumbent on an old-fashioned barber’s chair with ornate wrought-iron footrest and black leather padding, the star is being groomed to the point of a goddess-like perfection. Pearl grey powder is brushed along the lids and corners of her eyes. A mato suggests that she would like a “Garbo mouth” and Electa goes to work, drawing and redrawing the lip line for 20 minutes. Her hair has been “scissor cut, hair by hair” to fall away in layers from her face. ‘7 think I’m just a cutie, ’’she jokes after seeing herself in
a mirror. Everybody laughs, but Amato’s smile is the first to fade.
She was born in Tonawanda, New York, the eldest of six children of her Polish and Italian parents, and grew up in Buffalo’s south side. Her father, who died in 1973. was a trucking company dispatcher who was plagued throughout his life by tuberculosis of the bones, but was, says Amato, “a fabulous guy. We really dug each other.” Her father’s affection was a source of valuable support during an often difficult childhood. At the age of 11, she contracted polyneuritis, a disease of the nervous system, and nearly died. “I was paralyzed for a year. I couldn’t walk or move. That’s what gave me my first insights. I feel blessed that I’m even here.” Later, with both parents at work, she assumed much of the responsibility for looking after the five younger children. She speaks of the experience gratefully, but a little angrily: “I was just so lucky to have a dad that really liked me. Through all the shit that I went through, that got through to me. All the responsibilities that they put on me... they turned out to be a blessing and now I can cope with anything and still come back.”
She never made a conscious decision to go into show business—“it was always a part of my life.” Or at least it was from the time she was about 12, when her English teacher thrust her into a play and Amato discovered delightedly that she could make people laugh. Unlike other stagestruck youngsters of that era, she never read movie magazines. But she did have a movie idol—Audie Murphy, the diminutive soldier turned film star. “Wasn’t he fabulous? He was Mr. Good. He never made a bad movie. He was my ideal love. I would be washing dishes and I would imagine him coming through the kitchen door and stuff like that. I just wanted to kiss him all the time in my dreams. He was THE ONE.”
She achieved an early stardom of sorts herself with an excursion into the U.S. beauty contest mill that took her to the dizzy heights of the Miss America contest. It came about more or less by accident. As a scholarship student at Ithaca College, where she studied theatre arts, Amato had to take on time-consuming part-time jobs to make ends meet. Then someone suggested that the prize money in the local Taughnnauck Falls beauty contest would give her enough to live comfortably through her final college year. She entered and to her surprise, won, moving on to the Miss New York State competition where she was again victorious. That, in turn, led to the Miss America pageant where she was judged the most talented singer and placed eleventh overall. Looking back, she is glad that the Miss America crown eluded her. “I wasn’t raised that way by my parents. Many of the girls in the contest were raised to be in it. It’s really true.”
A fier 1 /2 hours ofshaping and contouring by Electa and Corrado, Amato, in a pink
cotton shirt-jacket worn over a black, twopiece outfit, emerges onto Montreal’s Crescent Street. A fier a visit to her hairdressers, where they are not ready for her, she heads for the Berkeley Hotel for lunch. Mentally, she is gearing up for the photographic session later, where she intends to campaign for three-quarter shots instead of profiles, which she feels do not do her justice. Over goulash at the Berkeley she broods about the lack of interest shown in her own ideas for the JULIE show. She wants big-name guests and thinks Team Canada hockey players would be likely candidates. “If they can do that on ice, they are naturals. They could do skits. ” Back through the rain to La Coupe,
then on to the downtown highrise apartment where photographer Lorraine works. Seated on a stack of telephone books, amid a maelstrom of frenzied preparations, A mato looks forlorn. “I’m going to succeed,” she says. “This show is going to bè a success. ” She graduated from Ithaca College in June, 1965, and three months later married the medical student who was her college boyfriend. His work took the newlyweds to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and to Chicago, where she found work in local revues and musical comedy. Then, in 1968, the Amatos moved to Canada to avoid the physician husband being drafted for service in the Vietnam war. The encounter between
the outgoing Julie and the traditional dour reserve of Canadians was at first traumatic. In the Don Mills apartment building where they lived, she was crushed to find that nobody spoke to her “because, as I came to find out, Canadians don’t. I was just freaking myself out.” Eventually, she realized that her neighbors were simply respecting her privacy “which never occurred to me. 1 went around to all the doors and introduced myself and it was fine. Finally, we got the whole floor together.”
A more shattering conflict in styles occurred after she signed on as a substitute teacher at a Roman Catholic secondary school in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. During a free discussion period with a classroom full of eighth-grade boys, the talk got around to sex “and there’s me drawing little diagrams on the board and everything. 1 just told them how things were. But in a good way.” Irate parents saw nothing good about it at all and bombarded the school with protests. Julie was out of a job.
Around that time, she heard that Dora Clark, a CBC talent booking officer, was holding auditions. The audition was a success, and launched Julie on a rapidly expanding Canadian career. She began appearing in plays and revues at Toronto’s Theatre in the Dell and other local clubs. In 1970, an appearance in a late-night show called You’d Better Believe It at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre caught the eye of a sound studio operator who was work-
ing on a TV commercial for a chocolate manufacturer. After that, recalls Amato, “things just rolled.” Soon she was working on other commercials, and popping up on just about every variety show going—the Bobby Vinton Show, Celebrity Dominoes, This Is The Law, Wayne Newton and Wayne and Shuster specials. Last year, she costarred in the moderately successful prime-time CBC soap opera, House Of Pride, playing the part of Jennie Boychuck, a frazzled Winnipeg housewife—the very antithesis of the cool and controlled reallife Amato. The secrets to her success, notes a close associate, are that “she has a very good voice and a very good ear for different accents (and) her face can totally change so you’re never sure who you’re looking at. She’s very versatile.”
In the photographer’s studio, a debate rages over how Amato should pose. Helen Oppenheim, the public relations lady for La Coupe, is searching for a “magic” moment and wants her to look as though she were singing. Photographer Lorraine disagrees. Amato interrupts to ask if there is any “classical music to give some peace instead of the craziness in my head.” The expected arguments over full-face versus profile shots develop. “I want to be honest, ” insists the star. “I don’t want that pretty, pretty North American look. ” Lorraine arranges a pose. “This is not a natural expression I have on my face,” Amato complains. “I am frozen here. I have fear in my eyes because I can’t move. ”
Before she agreed to do JULIE, Amato says that she was offered series by the CBC. CTV and Ontario’s Global TV network. None was “what I wanted to do. They were pretty formula-sounding shows. 1 don’t feel Î have to do everything when it’s offered to me.” Now that she has taken the plunge, she finds herself somewhat unnerved by the implications. “All of a sudden everything is really on your head. The responsibility of being known throughout the country, for what people are going to see in one half hour of you, is overwhelming. It’s terror, terror.” She is also aware of the peculiar impact that performers can have on others. “People idealize you. They look at you and see something you’re sure you couldn’t be. (But) there’s no way you can convince them that you’re not what they see. So you have them as your responsibility.” There is, she continues, “a lady who comes to the tapings” of the show in Montreal. “Her name is Bobby, and she just sits there and cries. I remind her of her daughter. She loves to hear me sing. She’s just happy for me because I’m happy, you know, and I affect her... Do you know what a weight that is?”
One early casualty of Julie’s show business success was her marriage, which broke up six years ago. After that, until his death this summer, she lived with Hogan. In 1973, the two moved into Amato’s own House of Pride—a 131-year-old, nineroom farmhouse surrounded by an acre of land on a Scarborough hilltop. Alec, Am-
ato’s 10-year-old son, and Hogan’s teenage daughter Laura also live in the house, which is decorated in a medley of styles ranging from antique elegance to modern. In her spare time, Amato sometimes rides her Honda 360 motorcycle, plays the cello, or reads. Mysteries and science fiction are among her favorites, but she is capable of interrupting a conversation to ask whether anyone has read the latest book by the avant garde Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing.
The Montreal photo session grinds on interminably. A young hairdresser’s assistant wants to know whether Amato is ever bored. “I’m never bored. Depressed maybe, but never bored. ” Her secretary, Lisa Olfman, arrives at the studio dressed like a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, carrying
with her several bottles of Rhine wine and some tapes by folk-blues singer Janis Ian. The tapes are played, while Amato goes to the bathroom to apply new lipstick. Later, she sips wine through a straw to protect her makeup. Listening to Janis Ian, Amato has an idea: “A lady who sings like that has got to be able to do skits. Wouldn’t it be great to have her on the show?” No one seems to hear, perhaps because there is nobody present from CFCF-TV, the Montreal CTV affiliate that is producing JULIE along with Champlain Productions Ltd. Finally, it is nearly 10p.m. and Amato has an idea for a final photograph. With an assistant supporting her back, she bends over backward to be photographed upside down with her hair cascading away from her face and a rhinestone star dangling above.
Julie Amato is grateful for the modest stardom that her sojurn in Canada has brought her—“1 just really got to love it here,” she says—but she can be sharply
critical of the way some things are done in Canadian show business. Like many Americans, the habit was early ingrained in her of always trying to “be the best at what you’re doing at any given time.” She finds that life in Canada can be frustrating because things are not made easy for talented people. “It’s terrible,” she says, “the way Canadian artists are treated—shameful.” Too many of the senior people in Canadian television, she feels, “just don’t have it, don’t know what they’re doing.” If Canadian performers tend to “piss and moan” a lot, she observes, that is understandable. “They feel shortchanged. Right across the border, they see the pot of gold.
They see performers, not even as good (as Canadians) a lot of the time, getting accolades and becoming stars. It just seems so unfair.”
For the time being at least, Amato is content to remain in Canada, despite offers from the United States. “They’re not dummies” in New York and Hollywood, she notes unblushingly. “They know a good thing when they see it.” What of the future? The idea of directing someday appeals to her, because “w hen you’re directing something, you can really have it go in the direction you want it to go. I’d like that.” Beyond that, she claims to have no particular goals. “All I know is that at 60, if
I should live that long, I would still like to have this house (in Scarborough). Those are the things I think about. I think things will naturally flowout of things that I’m doing, and I’ll do whatever I do and I’ll enjoy it.”
In the meantime, she is still grappling with the fact of Dominic Hogan's death and, in some respects, “going through the worst time of my life.” Suddenly, she had found “my father dead, Dominic not here and where the hell was he?” In the period that followed, she was torn between the grim conclusion that “this whole thing is futile, this life” and a new interest in “really trying to find out who the hell I am.” Now. caught up in the excitement and demands of her new series, she is beginning to experience a curiously detached sense of resolution, and of rebirth. “Now I see opposites in everything. 1 see that everything is an illusion. Death is an illusion. Yet I enjoy more, and I feel free. I don’t respect society’s time values. I think they are silly. I reject their time.” There is also a feeling that “I’m just beginning my whole life now. It’s insane, but I’m really beginning my whole life now."
It is late when the photo session finally ends. Everyone is invited back to Amato’s suite at Montreal’s Le Quatre Saisons for a drink. Singer Patsy Gallant will be there, along with Amato’s astrologer, Marc Béart. and some of secretary Lisa Olfman ’s friends, mainly young writers of television ad copy. But first there is time for a quick drink in Le Quatre Saisons’piano bar. It turns out that Amato knows the piano player, and she is persuaded to do an impromptu song for the crowd. It is exactly the kind of clichédscene that invariably used to crop up in all those movies about the long, hard road to becoming a star, y?