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Barbara Mandrell bets her career on television

September 26, 1997 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Barbara Mandrell always fit best on television. And now she’s giving up the concert stage to pursue an acting career.

Mandrell, who pulled the plug on her hit NBC variety series 15 years ago, makes a cameo appearance Sunday in the TV film ``Get to the Heart: The Barbara Mandrell Story,″ based on her 1990 autobiography (it airs at 9 p.m. EDT, rated TV-PG). Maureen McCormick (``The Brady Bunch″) stars as Mandrell.

Mandrell, 48, looking smart in a white pantsuit, sipped fruit juice in a conference room at the Country Music Association and pleaded guilty to qualities attributed to her in the TV movie: being a complete ham, self-assured to the point of being bossy and a protective den mother to her extended family.

``I-R-L-E-N-E,″ she spelled, leaning into a tape recorder to make certain her sister’s name would be correct. She also worked in plugs for sister Louise’s celebrity skeet shoot and the acting career of her daughter, Jaime Nicole Dudney (who plays Irlene Mandrell in ``Get to the Heart″).

In the past few years, Mandrell has acted on television when not on the road performing 80-to-100 shows a year. She’s appeared in ``Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,″ ``Touched by an Angel,″ ``Baywatch″ and has a recurring role on ``Sunset Beach.″

``Now, I can look at scripts knowing that I really can go for them and try, because I know I will be available,″ she said.

Mandrell’s recording career, which generated six No. 1 country hits from 1978-1983 including ``Sleeping Single in a Double Bed″ and ``I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,″ petered out in the late 1980s.

The peak of her fame was reached with ``Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters,″ a hit variety show with sisters Irlene and Louise that ran on NBC from 1980-82. The show found comedy in the sister’s sibling rivalries, and put a gospel music medley on network television each week.

After a farewell performance next month at the Grand Ole Opry, Mandrell will quit doing concerts and will devote the extra time to her acting career.

Mandrell hopes ``Get to the Heart″ makes as big a splash. Though listed with her husband as executive producers, Mandrell says she was too busy performing to meddle. Daughter Jaime was invited to speak up about any inaccuracies, and husband Ken Dudney was around a bit.

At first, Mandrell wasn’t sure about McCormick _ she originally wanted Jennie Garth of ``Beverly Hills, 90210″ to play her.

``In all candor, at first I thought ... when I see her playing me all I’m going to be able to think about is Marcia Brady,″ Mandrell said of McCormick. ``The truth is, when I saw the movie, not once did I think `Marcia.′ I liked that she was strong, kind of self-assured and not wimpy. Because I’m not.″

``Get to the Heart″ portrays Mandrell’s life as mostly a tug-of-war between family and career, with career winning most of the time.

``Within the first few minutes (of viewing the movie), I prayed and thanked God,″ Mandrell said. ``Because it really was miraculous that I liked it because I didn’t have anything to do with it.″

McCormick said she visited Mandrell during a stint in Las Vegas to research the part.

``I hung out a day with Barbara just to get to know her and understand her more,″ McCormick said. ``I think it’s the hardest thing when you’re still alive and your life story is being done. It’s a very delicate matter.″

Mandrell was a child prodigy, performing steel guitar in Las Vegas and local television. She became a country hitmaker in the 1970s, and was voted best entertainer by the country music industry in 1980 and 1981. The variety show made her a star outside the country audience.

Two years after the series went off the air, Mandrell was devastated by a car crash that also injured two of her children. The event was a major turning point in her life.

``Unless it happens to you or someone close to you, you have no concept,″ she said. ``We didn’t.″

McCormick portrays Mandrell as embittered and alienated from her family after the crash. Mandrell said the reality was much worse than the TV adaptation.

``It’s much softer than I really was,″ Mandrell said. ``But it’s television, and I’m glad to say that kind of language is not allowed on television.″