An actress in the grand tradition -- who can laugh at herself

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A tiny, innocuous mouse has grown into a . . . rat. Jane Seymour, whose first stage appearance, at the age of 13, was as a mouse in the ballet "Nutcracker" in her native England (and who is now playing the part of a sometimes mousy Mrs. Mozart in this year's most acclaimed Broadway drama, "Amadeus"), will shortly be seen as an absolute "rat" in her role as the insistently hateful Cathy in the miniseries remake of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" (NBC, Sunday, 8-11 p.m.; Monday, 9-11 p.m.; Wednesday, 8-11 p.m. -- check local times).

I joined Miss Seymour for a pre-performance dinner at Sardi's, just across the street from the Broadhurst Theater where she is appearing. Dinner? Well, if you can call half a grapefruit and a bottle of Perrier water dinner.

Jane Seymour is a tiny woman with penetrating eyes which match her wit and intelligence. At moments, especially when her eyes (one brown, the other green, by the way) flash at the same time she throws back her head, she seems a great beauty in the grand tradition of theatrical beauties. But then, in repose, she is transformed into quietly pretty child-woman, with surprising insight into her own character as well as the difficult and often artificial world of the actor.

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How did the name Jane Seymour come about?

"Well, Joyce Penelope Wilhelmina Frankenberg was just too long, too complicated, too 'foreign,' so I chose the first name, Jane, because it was a plain name that I could live with. When we chose Seymour I didn't instantly recognize her as the most obscure of Henry VIII's wives, but I just stuck with it."

Would she like to play the part of the real Jane Seymour in a play or film?

Jane shakes her head. "I would be miscast. She was the middle wife, the one that he really loved. She was quiet, drab, and noted for being quite ugly . . . ."

I agree quickly that, considering those standards, Miss Seymour would be miscast as the real Jane.

In looking over her official biography, which includes her American performances in "Captains and Kings," "Seventh Avenue," "The Awakening Land," and "Battlestar Galactica," I note that there is one memorable omission -- "The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders." She blushes and adds still another color -- pink -- to the Seymour spectrum. "It was like a passport to good TV parts. The advice given to me was that if I wanted to get to do something like Kate [as the character is sometimes called] in 'East of Eden' I had to have a high TVQ [ audience-recognition rating], and the only way to get that is to do a series or a highly rated special.

"Well, I prefer not to be caught in a series, and 'Dallas Cowboys' came up and proved to be one of the highest-rated specials ever. It was watched by 68 million people and it proved once and for all that I am able to play Americans. I'm proud of my part in that special -- but I don't necessarily think it was a great work of art."

In the Peter Schaffer play "Amadeus" Jane plays the part of Constanze Weber, the playful wife of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who tries to use her mousy wiles to persuade Antonio Salieri to improve the lot of her husband, then leaves Mozart, only to return at his demise. Did Miss Seymour have trouble getting the part, overcoming prejudice against her because of her previous roles in pop American TV series?

She laughs and the eyes sparkle with the memory: "No! Because the director had never heard of me or seen any of my work. I was just No. 637 who walked on stage to audition. When he asked me where I'd had my training, I told him, 'In my own form of repertory -- trying to survive in American television.'"

There have been various interpretations of the play. What does Mrs. Mozart think about it?

Jane turns solemn for a moment. The sparkle in the eyes turns cool. "I believe the play is about how everyone has to learn to live with the mediocrity that surrounds us all in a very large part of our lives. There will always be a genius, either in our own field or another field, that we would wish to be. But we must learn to settle for whatever it is that we have. That's the message Schaffer meant."

Does Jane identify with Constanze?

"Whenever I'm playing a role, that's who I identify with, because I become that character on stage. The wig man puts on my wig, the makeup and costume go on, and Jane Seymour is put aside for three hours as I become Mrs. Mozart. I identify with Constanze. But I also identified with playing Kate in 'East of Eden.'"

Despite her great success in "Amadeus," Miss Seymour's enthusiasm for "East of Eden" bubbles over into the conversation time and time again. She plays the part of Cathy, portrayed in the original film by Jo Van Fleet. Unlike the movie version, however, this TV miniseries starts right at the beginning of the John Steinbeck book -- so the role of the basically evil Kate dominates the show from beginning to end.

Says Jane with great relish (emotional relish, that is -- she is still working on the grapefruit as nourishment): "I think the audience has to hate me and has to think of me as evil, or else the whole point of the story doesn't make sense. But I do hope they also identify with me, with at least part of my character, because we all have the potential for evil within us. I hope many viewers will feel they understand why this woman did what she does. In the childbirth scene in the fourth hour I was trying to portray the three or four different women within Cathy. She has to be believed to be the most innocent, sweet, lovely person as well as the evil Cathy.

"Don't forget that I am playing a woman who is described by the author as a monster, a woman incapable of love. That kind of cuts out a lot of humor -- but I tried to find tiny moments of vulnerability in her that I think make her watchable."

I have previewed "East of Eden" and found it to be a disturbing and sometimes objectionable explicit family saga, dominated by Miss Seymour's performance and, toward the end, harmed by the weak performances of the bottoms brothers, Timothy and Sam. Sam, unfortunately, does not manage to erase the memory of James Dean from the mind of a viewer impressed by Dean's original performance. Miss Seymour, however, gives a remarkable performance in the Jo Van Fleet role, tracing the growth of the character from nasty little girl to full-fledged, almost fiendishly evil, woman. From now on the role may well be remembered as the Jane. Seymour part rather than the Van Fleet role.

Is Jane worried that the audience may hate her forever?

"I wouldn't like to think that I am basing my career on needing to be loved by the audience as the character last seen. If that was the case, then I should really try to become Mary Tyler Moore and do a series. I really have never been typecast yet. It's very easy not to be typecast. You just say, 'Thank you but no thank you . . . .'" She giggles. "And then, maybe, never work again."

Miss Seymour seems like a happy woman. She has a house on the West Coast and now rents an apartment in New York's Greenwich Village. Ism she happy?

"I am very happy, very content. Not all the time -- but on balance I am definitely happier than I am unhappy. I think so much depends upon whether one can recognize happiness in oneself. It's such a terrible waste if one can't enjoy moments as they happen."

The enjoyment of a grapefruit, for instance? She smiles happily as she scoops up the last of her citrus dinner. "Aren't they marvelous -- grapefruit is my favorite food. Thank goodness, for my figure's sake, it's not peanuts."

I remind her of the legendary story of the first meeting between Helen Hayes and her late husband, Charles MacArthur. He scooped up a handful of peanuts and presented them to her with the words: "Would that they were emeralds . . . ." Since I had just received a shipment of tree-ripened Ruby Red grapefruit from Texas, I offered to send some to Miss Seymour.

As she leaves to dash across the street to prepare for her evening performance, she shakes my hand and whispers in my ear: "Now, don't forget the Ruby Reds."

"Would that they were real rubies . . . ." I say.

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