Getting the Part - 50 Years Later

Peg Phillips became a great-grandmother, then turned to acting

PEG PHILLIPS, Emmy-nominated as ``best supporting actress'' for CBS-TV's ``Northern Exposure,'' says the role of Ruth-Anne Miller fits like a second skin.

Just like the proprietor of the General Store, Ms. Phillips is a radical optimist, a dedicated do-gooder, and a chronic free spirit.

Since she was 15 and graduated from high school, Phillips dreamed of becoming an actress. As a single mother supporting four daughters, her dream went on hold for 50 years. Then she retired from her job as an accountant.

``I told myself, `Now I can either take up macrame or study acting,' '' she says. ``Next day, I enrolled in the University of Washington's Drama School.''

But even before she graduated in 1987, she began to miss the street kids she had worked with in San Francisco for 10 years. ``I picked up the phone book and looked under Juvenile Correctional Facilities, '' she recalls. ``Echo Glen Children's Center popped out of the page. I've been teaching weekly classes there for the last six years.''

In 1990, CBS was casting a one-hour lighthearted drama about the quirky citizens in a remote Alaskan village. It was being filmed in Redmond, Wash., so the producers of ``Northern Exposure'' thought they would hire a local actress for a bit part in the first show.

Peg Phillips read the 12 lines and got the part. ``I guess you'd describe my bit as `atmosphere,' '' she says in the deep voice that always shuttles her to the bass-baritone section in the choir. ``The first season, I was in all episodes but three. From then on, I became a cast regular and have been in every show.''

Phillips will be featured in a forthcoming episode (CBS, 10-11 p.m., check local listing) in which the IRS decides to audit Ruth-Anne. ``It isn't easy, since she does everything on the barter system. You bring her a bearskin, she'll give you a week's supply of groceries.'' Phillips couldn't help laughing, for here Ruth-Anne and Peg part company. For more than 40 years, she worked as a tax accountant.

Today her four daughters (a minister, a teacher of emotionally disturbed children, a worker with low-income families, and a CPA), her four grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren are elated with Phillips's success.

As a divorced mother, Phillips had to squeeze in community theater work after a full day as an accountant. She helped start the Little Theater Repertory in Santa Cruz, Calif., and worked with runaway kids on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.

``I wasn't going to be put out to pasture,'' Phillips says of her retirement.

``I enrolled in college, and I supposed the students must have talked behind my back about a great-grandma in acting class, but they never said anything to my face. The teacher always gave me roles that were suitable, never asked me to play a teenager.''

By her senior year, Phillips was restless. She missed working with troubled children. ``Somehow, I had to get back,'' she says.

`IT was six years ago that Peg Phillips walked into my office,'' says Patti Berntsen, associate superintendent of the Echo Glen Children's Center, a juvenile correctional facility in Snoqualmie, Wash.

``She had a program in mind for the boys and girls here, who range from 9 to 18. Peg felt they could learn to communicate by doing improvisations. I was frank and told her we'd had many volunteers, mostly young performers and college drama majors who came here to teach drama, and it hadn't worked.''

She and Phillips decided to give it a try, though. Youths would attend on a strictly voluntary basis. ``The first month I sat in on the workshops, and I saw Peg was making a difference with these kids,'' Ms. Bentsen says.

In particular, she noticed two boys who were always fighting each other. They both enrolled in Phillips's class, and no one knew what to expect. As it turned out, while doing improvisation, the boys' relationship improved.

Jim Dunlap, based with the ``Northern Exposure'' company in Redmond, does the contracts and payroll. He came from a background of social work and small theater. He and Peg struck up an instant friendship.

``She told me about `her kids' at Echo Glen,'' Dunlap says. ``Now I'm teaching every Saturday.'' The facility, 45 minutes north of Seattle, is near the mountains. There are no barbed-wire fences or walls. In a series of cottages, 200 boys and girls are housed separately. It may look more like a park, ``but those cottages are locked-down houses,'' Phillips says.

``These are just ordinary kids in extraordinary circumstances,'' she continues. ``The classes are from March through November. On November 21, we'll do our big show, `The Theater Inside.' I write the script, and this year it's called, `I Want To Be Me,' with each kid telling what he-she wants to be when released.''

``The first week is basic improv,'' Mr. Dunlap explains. ``One exercise is called `The Machine.' The kids pretend they are a machine, and make the appropriate sound. We instruct, `Speed it up and slow it down.' It's an icebreaker. The youngsters begin to relax. We never ask why they are at Echo Glen, but when they begin to smile, it hits the heart.

``Sometimes they do mime. Peg will say, `Pretend you're flying a kite on a hill,' or `Pantomime a relationship, like a little boy and his granddad walking together.' They are basics, but they get the youngsters interacting.''

Last year, at the show, Peg persuaded some of the crew from ``Northern Exposure'' to bring lights and props. ``Several of the crew worked the show,'' Phillips says, ``others joined the TV cast in the audience. The kids were thrilled - I was, too!''

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