Catching Up With Ilene Kristen
In the movie Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, the title characters almost destroy their friendship over an argument about who’s the ‘Mary’ and who’s the ‘Rhoda’ in their relationship. Both fancy themselves the always-perfect Mary Richards, while neither relishes the part of quirky best friend Rhoda Morgenstern, Had Ilene Kristen (ex-Delia, Ryan’s Hope) been in the film, however that plot print wouldn’t have been an obstacle. The wacky next-door neighbor is a role she says she was meant to play.
“I never identified with Mary - just with the nuts around her,” quips Kristen, who’s always wanted to work on a sitcom. “I’ve always seen myself as the nut next door.” She pauses. “That’ll be my book - The Nut Next Door.”
It wouldn’t include a chapter about working on a sitcom if it were published today, but Kristen could write pages about all the fun she had as Ryan's Hope's flamboyant Delia Reid Ryan Ryan Coleridge Crane, the popular character she played on and off during the show’s 14-year run, from 1975-89. An insecure and troubled soul, Delia was also selfish, a schemer and a virtuoso vixen. No matter which side was out in greater force, Kristen brought humor to the role, as she did when she played benevolent waitress-turned-singer Norma Gilpin on Loving from 1990-91.
But given her lasting association with the rough-around-the edges, soft-in-the center Delia, Kristen’s current role, in Scott McPherson’s play Marvin's Room (at the Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center in Nyack, NY), seems like a continuation of her career motif. As Lee, the role Meryl Streep played in the movie version - Kristen is the feisty, independent beautician who’s raising two sons by herself. After 20 years, she returns home to her estranged father, aunt and sister, who has leukemia and is in search of a bone-marrow donor.
Although Kristen has no kids of her own, she’s been a maternal figure for several New York City children she met while doing volunteer work at a welfare hotel. “Some time ago I decided I didn’t really need to have a child of my own,” she reflects. “There were so many kids around that needed people, I decided I would dedicate myself to them.”
In 1988, Kristen arranged for some of these children to appear on Ryan's Hope. One boy, then 12, even got a speaking role. But her guidance wasn’t enough to help him overcome all his problems, and today he’s in prison for armed robbery. Kristen, who testified at his trial, feels the punishment was too harsh.
“For a first-time offender there’s an element of rehabilitation that is possible,” she maintains. “If given an opportunity and given education, some love and a little bit more sympathy, some of these kids can come out of (prison) far better than they were when they went in.”
Kristen exchanges letters with the young man, who even sent her a copy of the GED certificate he got in prison. “He considers me his mother because he feels that his own mother has not been a good mother,” she explains, her deep voice dropping down a notch.
While her ‘kids' still occupy a chunk of Kristen’s time, she’also been busy in the theater, acting, directing and working on musical development. In addition the native New Yorker has been jaunting to L.A., where she recently performed her nightclub act. Kristen also co-produced a film called Everything's George starring Frank Gorshin as George Burns and featuring Rodney Dangerfield and TV pop-culture icons like Adam West, Soupy Sales and Darryl Hickman of Dobie Gillis fame. “It was a pretty wild experience,” Kristen reports, adding that it probably won’t be coming to a theater anytime soon. “There are a lot of botch-ups in the film, and I have a feeling it may not be released.”
Kristen had three tours of duty with Ryan's Hope (1975-78, 1982-83, 1968-89) but her fondest memories are of the last one. “At that point they knew they just had to let me do whatever I wanted,” she says “And I just felt like I knew what I was doing finally. I worked like a dog, but it was a lot of fun and it was very social.” But ask her about her favorite storyline, and she picks an early one that showcased Delia’s duplicity and her own comedic ability. Delia was married to Frank but having an affair with Roger and she kept up the ruse by telling her husband she was taking cooking classes with her friend Sheila. “I had some great lines and I was lying all over the place,” Kristen remembers. “The audience would know that I’d been tussling around with Roger, but I’d give this whole detailed account of my cooking class.”
Talk about doing another soap brings an enthusiastic response from Kristen, who remains friendly with former RH co-stars Nancy Addison Altman (ex-Jill), Ron Hale (ex-Roger, now Mike, GH), Jason Adams (ex-John) and Malcolm Groome (ex-Pat). She says she’d love to work with AMC diva Susan Lucci but she’ll be content as long as she’s performing.
“The thing that really makes me happiest is getting a laugh,” she chuckles. ‘That’s what I strive for, in my work and just in general - how I can get a laugh out of people who don’t laugh.”
A sentiment both Mary and Rhoda would no doubt share.
Ilene in Marvin's Room