Signs of motherhood:
She arrives for an interview with her 2 1/2 -year-old son's lunch splattered across her black shorts. She grows distracted when a stranger's child throws a tantrum nearby. She meticulously tidies up the table after lunch, carrying not just her own, but others' dirty cups and plates to a trash can.
No doubt about it, Bess Armstrong -- the Baltimore-born actress now starring in the ABC sitcom "Married People" -- takes her role as a mother very seriously.
Sitting in the courtyard of Cross Keys with her movie producer-husband John Fiedler, she has come home for a family christening and excitedly describes the anarchy in her parents' Ruxton house as she prepared to leave:
"My son was doing a 51-piece puzzle on the floor of the kitchen. I was trying to cook dinner. My mother was trying to get the dogs into the car because they have fleas. My brother was on the floor with his 5-month-old baby, and my father's wandering around the kitchen going, 'Uh, is this a knife?'. . . because I think twice in 40 years he's had to cook himself lunch.
"But my feeling is that's sort of the way a family should be. I like it, even though we all go semi-hysterical."
As she speaks, there's a youthful exuberance to the 36-year-old actress. Dressed in a gray sweater, shorts and black suede flats, her golden brown hair tucked simply behind her ears, she looks like she could still pose for her Bryn Mawr School yearbook.
Only the sunglasses, a pair of very trendy tortoise-shell shades, suggest the life of a rich or famous actress who lives in L.A. (She quickly confesses, however, that due to her son's penchant for demolishing them, she now only buys dime-store styles.)
Looks, however, only tell part of the story. In conversation, Bess Armstrong is direct, witty and articulate. She can be savagely funny in describing how Hollywood treats women over 30 and brutally honest when revealing her insecurities about working with her husband.
Or, she can be poignantly open in describing how the short life of the couple's severely disabled daughter, Lucy, forever changed her life.
In 1986, after a healthy pregnancy, Ms. Armstrong delivereda baby girl whose brain was underdeveloped. For the next six months, she and her husband cared for Lucy, whom they were told would never walk, talk or even understand they were her mother and father. In January 1987, the child died in her mother's arms.
"She was wonderful and we loved her," Ms. Armstrong says in a measured, calm voice. "The enduring gift that our daughter, Lucy, has given to us as a family is that there's really nothing we take for granted. Just nothing."
After her death, Ms. Armstrong became pregnant again and gave birth to a healthy son, Luke. Having endured tragedy with her first child, she resolved to take part in as much of his upbringing as possible. She refused scripts for hour-long TV programs, declined offers to do location work and made a deal with her husband to not be apart for more than two weeks at a time.
Those decisions had a dramatic effect on her career. "It really did put me out of the business for two years," she says. "The business is very fickle. They make assumptions that if you've dropped out of sight, it's for professional reasons. It was a harder climb back up. It was very frustrating, but it was necessary. There was nothing to do but go through it."
It's seems particularly fitting then that she should return to a TV sitcom, playing a pregnant working woman. In "Married People," which airs Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. on WJZ-TV (Channel 13), she portrays a yuppie lawyer living with her writer-husband in an apartment building that also houses two other couples.
When executive producers Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser were creating the part, they had Bess Armstrong in mind. "We've just always thought she's terrific," says Mr. Sternin. "She represents the ideal WASP, blond goddess, but she's such a real, wholesome, warm person."
Although the show has generally received lukewarm reviews, some critics have singled Ms. Armstrong out as the program's saving grace. While a writer in USA Today panned the show, he praised her performance, saying she brings "pep, and a little bite, to her role."
Not that she would know any of this, of course. After her 1986 series "All is Forgiven" was canceled, she gave up reading what others said about her.
"That show got these brilliant reviews and everybody said, 'Buy land in the south of France. You're going to be on forever.' . . . and it was off the air in four weeks," she recalls.
And although she has worked on TV sitcoms, miniseries and in motion pictures such as "The Four Seasons," "High Road to China," and "Nothing in Common," a real blockbuster has eluded her so far.
"The truth is that in the course of wanting to work, sometimes you take roles that you talk yourself into believing are better than they are," she explains. "I've always jokingly said there should be Academy Award in the category: Does Most With Least . . . You come into the business thinking that you're going to get that one miraculous part and then it's easy from there on. The truth is it's not."
She also faults the industry for providing too few good parts for women. "There are an awful lot of very talented people out there and not many roles. And more and more, show business is becoming business. If there is a good movie with a good woman's role and one of the three leading ladies of the minute is not available, they will wait rather than cast somebody else."
Which leads her to rail against the way Hollywood treats adult actresses. "The minute 'Entertainment Tonight' says you're 30 it's all over until you're 45 and can play the mother of older children," she says. "You see leading men who you know are older than you are, who you've worked with several times, and suddenly, 'Oh no, you're too old to work opposite them.'. . . The leading men lose their hair, they get pot bellies. It doesn't matter. They just play opposite younger and younger women."
She's characteristically good-natured, however, in assessing some of the notable leading men she's worked with:
On Tom Selleck: "He's very sweet."
On Tom Hanks: "We knew each other the moment we met. We were laughing within no time."
On Alan Alda: "A darling, wonderful, sweet, great man."
But her first impression of real-life leading man, John Fiedler, was far from rhapsodic.
"I wasn't interested," she says simply of the time in 1984 when they were introduced by her former agent.
"And I was involved with someone else," adds Mr. Fiedler, 38, who was then president of production for Columbia Pictures.
Months later, they ran into each other again and things changed, especially when they realized both had grown up in Baltimore.
"This guy knew where Charles Street was," she says incredulously.
But despite having been raised in the same town, their lives had been dramatically different. He had spent his teen-age years in a Cockeysville apartment, acting and playing basketball at Dulaney High School. Ms. Armstrong, the daughter of two teachers from an old-line Baltimore family, had grown up with four siblings in Ruxton and attended Bryn Mawr.
For her, acting was always more of a necessity than pastime. "When you ask, 'Why this career?' Well, the answer is, 'Because there's nothing else you can possibly imagine doing.' I always say that when I go back to Bryn Mawr and talk to kids . . . That's my belief. If there are other careers that you think you could be happy in, then go into them. Because this one will break your heart. It almost has to before you're any good in it."
After graduating from Brown University in 1975 with a dual degree in Latin and theater, Ms. Armstrong moved to Manhattan and got her first big break at age 23, winning the starring role in the CBS sitcom "On Our Own."
She credits the security of family life with giving her the confidence to make a go of it in the cutthroat world of show business. "One of the reasons I've been able to do what I've done with my life and venture out as far as I have for a Baltimore girl is that [home's] always been there," she says.
Having been married for nearly five years, she and her husband are considering expanding their own family soon. But exactly how many children they'll have remains to be seen. When Mr. Fiedler suggests offspring in the double digits, Ms. Armstrong's mouth quickly drops.
But one place where you won't find them collaborating is on the big screen. A self-professed biased fan, Ms. Armstrong praises Mr. Fiedler's latest film "Tune In Tomorrow," a comedy starring Peter Falk and Barbara Hershey opening Nov. 2. He regularly finds time to attend tapings of her show. But working together on a movie, for the moment at least, is out of the question.
"I'm not secure enough yet to do that," she says. "I couldn't handle the idea of him having the authority to come up to me on a set and say, 'Babe, could you do that faster and funnier?' I'd kill him . . . Our children would be orphans."
THE ARMSTRONG FILE
Born: Dec. 11, 1953.
Education: Graduated from Bryn Mawr School, 1971; Brown University, 1975.
Family: Married since 1986 to movie producer John Fiedler; daughter Lucy, who died in 1987; Luke, 2 1/2 .
Residence: Los Angeles.
Favorite TV shows: "Roseanne," "In Living Color," "L.A. Law," "Cheers."