Her roots as a Sephardic Jew of Hispanic descent more or less laid the framework for Shelley Morrison's long career as a character actor. She's played ethnic roles in television and film since the 1960s, including Sister Sixto on "The Flying Nun." As Rosario, the El Salvadorean maid on the NBC hit "Will & Grace," Morrison holds her own with the four principals: Megan Mullally (her employer, Karen), Eric McCormack (Will), Debra Messing (Grace) and Sean Hayes (Jack). Aside from her connection with the show, Morrison made the news last year after a brief run-in with the law when she was arrested for shoplifting. A breast and lung cancer survivor, she lives in Los Angeles and has been married to Walter Dominguez for 31 years. They have been honored for their work with the homeless and low-income families.
Q. Did you know the show had made it when guest stars like Madonna started rolling in?
A. I knew when it made it big when I realized how it touched people of all different ages, of all different ethnic backgrounds. We would get letters from young people across the country who are gay and having a difficult time trying to express it to their family and friends.
Q. What is it about Rosario that works?
A. I am kind of the grounding influence. Rosario is not over the top. The character has hit a chord. She's an elder, a Hispanic with dignity, who doesn't take any guff and who says things a lot of people would like to say.
Q. What's up with the sunglasses she wears?
A. That started one day because of the lights on the set [the glasses are prescription]. My eyes were kind of bothering me. Max [Mutchnick] and David [Kohen], who created the show, loved my wearing sunglasses, and so that stuck. I love it because I can see where I'm going!
Q. Has your ethnic background been good for your career?
A. Yes and no. I had to change my name in the mid-'50s so I wouldn't be locked into only playing ethnics. But obviously that didn't work. Someone once asked me, "Is there anything you would like to play that you haven't played?" And I said, yes, a Swedish milkmaid [laughs].
Q. Who picked your stage name?
A. My real name is Rachel Mitrani, and in college they called me Shelley. My father's name was Morris, and that's where Morrison came from. Early in my career, it was the time of the really pretty people, so I decided right then and there to be a character actress. You know, people would say fix your nose, fix your teeth, and I would say pick a finger, you know?
Q. You still live in the apartment building you lived in as a child in Los Angeles?
A. My parents owned it, and my relatives lived in the other four units. I've lived here for 58 years. For us, family comes first. We are so blessed, and it's important to put back. Let's face it, the world has shifted on its axis, and the value structure has shifted. There is a wonderful song in "Into the Woods" by Steven Sondheim: "Careful the things you say, children will listen; careful the things you do, children will see and learn." And if you don't walk your talk how can you expect them to? We're pretty low key.
Q. What have you found to be the biggest myth about fame?
A. The public is wonderful. If it weren't for the public, I wouldn't be where I am. But there are times I would like to be invisible. I've lost weight in the last couple of years mainly to take pressure off my knees. I had knee surgery and they wanted to do a knee replacement, and I said forget it. I'm just going to take some tonnage off, and it's really helped. I eat five small meals a day. I do exercises. None of this South Beach or Atkins -- just sensible. It took about two years to lose 45 pounds.
Q. Do you think the old adage bad press is better than no press is true?
A. No. No. Jennifer Lopez did the last episode with us. And she's a doll. She's professional and affectionate and funny and came so prepared. I just ... It ticks me off, it really does. I think because of what's happening in the world right now, a lot of the rag sheets, a lot of the tabloids. ... I guess people [who read them] are trying to escape in a way.
Q. When she guest starred, who was she dating?
A. Marc [Anthony] was there, and he was very sweet to her. They are both Hispanic, and I think she found someone with a similar background. He's adorable. We were sitting outside of the sound stage, and I happened to say to him, "You look like one of our relatives." And he said, "Well, he must be very ugly." I said, "Oh, no, he's adorable, and so are you!" He kind of blushed.
Patricia Sheridan can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2613.)