LOS ANGELES — The rain was coming down in buckets, turning the dirt road into a swamp. Wendie Malick, former New York model-turned-actress (star of NBC's "Just Shoot Me," Thursdays, 9:30-10 p.m.) wasn't coifed for a fashion magazine cover.
It was 1989, she and three others, headed by Richard Erickson, who would later become her husband, were riding motorcycles, trying to get to the small African village of Aungba, in the Congo (former Zaire). Their goal was to deliver the motorcycles to the workers at a health center Mr. Erickson had built the previous year.
Remembering that day, Ms. Malick explains: "It all began when a friend of mine in L.A. talked me into going to a village near Tijuana, Mexico, where a group called the Maverick Building Squad was building houses for the poor."
Malick, born in Buffalo, N.Y., was a fashion model in New York City, studied acting, and appeared on Broadway. "Then," she explains, "I came to L.A. and was doing OK in films and TV. But I just felt my life in Hollywood had become all me, me, me, so when my friend suggested something to help those in need, I went."
It wasn't any photo-op; the volunteers really worked. Over one weekend, they worked from sunup to sundown and built two houses. When one young family moved from the metal drum and cardboard shack they lived in to a clean little house, the mother holding her baby in her arms tugged at Malick's sleeve and said, "Thank you for saving my son's life."
It was on this same trip that she met Erickson. He headed a construction company, so he was a pro at getting things done. He also was a good teacher.
"Richard was quite different from any man I'd ever seen. I was quite smitten from the moment I laid eyes on him. When he said he wanted to talk with me, I thought he was going to ask for a date," she confesses. Instead he told her that in five months he was going back to Africa where several years before he'd built some houses and a hospital. He wanted to take motorcycles to the infirmaries and asked if she wanted to go.
Malick, who had been discovered in the line to buy theater tickets at Times Square by a scout for the Wilhelmina Model Agency, and had used her modeling as a ticket to see the world, had never thought of riding a bike or taking supplies to the Congo. "I found myself nodding yes," she says, smiling.
For the next few months, she was busy. Erickson bought her a little motorcycle for Christmas. She learned to ride, got her license, and that spring was off with Richard and two others.
They rode from Mombasa, Kenya, on the ocean, all the way through Uganda.
"In Uganda, we hit rain, and I don't mean dribbles, but a downpour," she says. "My inexperience at riding showed. When the roads went from slick to swamp, I kept grabbing those front brakes, which you're not supposed to do, so I ended up having an accident."
Malick was air-lifted out with a group of safari people. Erickson admired her courage. By the time the others got the bikes to the village, she was able to get to Aungba and meet the villagers. Since then, Malick and Erickson have married and have made four trips to that African village. They've also gone back to Mexico with the Maverick Building gang.
"Two months ago, we were in Aungba, and it was the most joyous journey," the actress says. "A group of us were greeted on our arrival with songs. The native women had flowers in their hair, and everything was swept clean for the dedication of a maternity wing we had started the previous year."
Her husband had taught the villagers how to make bricks out of the earth, and how to continue building.
"As he began to speak [he knows their dialect, and Malick knows French, which many of them speak], we heard the cry of a newborn baby."
The first child to be born in the new facility was named Richard by its mother. "I had to fight back the tears," Malick says.
She had grown up listening to her grandmother, who was an opera singer. Her mother was a fashion model, and her father ran a community theater and was interested in politics. It was crystal clear that little Wendie was going to be an actress and an activist. There wasn't a stray puppy, a bird with a bent wing, or an environmental drive with which she wasn't busily involved.
Today, her off-camera life is light years away from her role as Nina, the self-absorbed ex-model and fashion editor of Blush Magazine on "Just Shoot Me."
"At first, I wasn't sure where the writers were going with my character," she says. "Now, I understand. Instead of being bitter, [Nina is] kicking and screaming her way into middle age. She's a zany madcap, and I love playing her."
Malick doesn't fit into the career-seeking mold. Even her home in Los Angeles is unique. It's on 40 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains. Each morning she rides her horse for an hour before she leaves for work. "We have two head of horse, three head of dog, and one head of cat," she explains.
They also have a meditation house on the property. On weekends, Malick and her girlfriends meditate for 30 minutes, drum, and then share what's going on with each other.
"It's a great spiritual aid," she says.
The actress readily admits her husband has been a great calming influence, and more than once reminds her to slow down - and breathe!
"I guess it all goes back to my roots in Buffalo," says Malick, who recently completed a film there, a comedy called "Manna From Heaven," costarring Shelley Duvall.
"When I was little, my grandfather told me, 'Wendie, every day you need to take 10 minutes and just sit and be still, and think about what's going on,' " Malick says. "Even now, I sometimes get so caught up in my life I forget to just chill. Then I hear those words, and I sit down and just listen. It's amazing what uplifting thoughts come to mind."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society