SUPERSTAR MOMS

PEOPLE.COM (May, 2002)

After playing a mom on “Mr. Belvedere,” Graff pursued real-life motherhood. Graff puts the squeeze on her real life family, daugher Nikka and husband Ben Lanzarone, in June 2000.

Ilene Graff admits she’s in awe of people who make deliberate career choices. For the actress best known as lawyer-mom Marsha Owens on ABC’s “Mr. Belvedere,” life has been more like a series of seized opportunities. 

“I never had a master plan. I just sort of take it day by day,” says the cheerful Graff from her home in Studio City, California. Despite her successful run on the sitcom (which costarred Bob Uecker as her husband, George, and the late Christopher Hewett as the family’s British butler and all around problem-solver) Graff says she had trouble landing other roles. To casting agents, “I was Wesley’s mommy.”

So Graff concentrated on real-life motherhood instead. Her daughter, Nikka, is now 18 and a musical theater major at the Boston Conservatory.

“She’s so much further along thatn I was at that age. She’s amazing,” says Graff, who will head to Boston soon to see Nikka in a student production of Chicago. “It seems like yesterday she was diapers, and now she’s signing a lease.’

Graff also got her start in musical theater, landing a role as a singer and lead understudy in Promises, Promises on Broadway soon after graduating fron Ithaca College in 1970. The Queens, NY-raised singer went onto play Sandy in the original Broadway production of Grease, where she met her musical director husband, Ben Lanzarone. Then she fulfilled a dream by being the first to play the part of Cleo in the musical comedy, I Love My Wife (1977-1978).

“You cross things off your to-do list, the things you want to accomplish in life, and creating a role was it for me,” says Graff. I was so happy.

Even during her “Mr. Belvedere” days, Graff never stopped singing. The show’s creators occasionally worked in music-based storylines to show off Graff’s talents.

Post-“Belvedere,” Graff has enjoyed the gigs that have come her way, though she says she’d love the chance to do series television again. She sang on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, performed annually on telethons for children’s charity Variety Club, and appeared in the 2001 TV movie version of South Pacific as Dinah Culbert, best friend to Glenn Close’s Nellie Forbush.

Although it’s been 12 years since she played mom to three rambunctious kids on “Mr. Belvedere,” her memories of good times on the set remain fresh.

“You miss the people a lot. Then you start to lose them, and you wish you could be better about keeping in touch. But when you’re not in daily contact, it’s hard.”

She keeps up mostly with onscreen daughter Tracy Wells (Heather) by phone, and occasionally runs into Rob Stone (Kevin) who lives nearby. “I’ll go to the store and people will say, “Your son was just here,’” Graff says with a giggle.