The night Brooke Shields' made her debut in "The Addams Family," one of her co-stars was ready to pounce with a prank.
"You have to make fun of her," explained Jackie Hoffman, a comedian highly skilled at improvisational humor who is playing Grandma opposite Shields' Morticia in the Broadway musical.
Shields was prepared. She's no dummy. You don't join hit shows in the middle of runs such as "Wonderful Town," "Chicago," "Cabaret," "Grease" and now "The Addams Family" without expecting some ribbing from the cast.
It came midway through Act I on her debut night: Hoffman, costumed as a wizened woman in her 100s, walked across the stage and, in a cackle, asked, "Know what comes between me and my Calvin Klein jeans?" She then waved her rear end at the audience and answered her own question. "Nothing."
The audience in the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre erupted in laughter, almost everyone recognizing the reference to Shields' famous TV commercials in the 1980s. The person who enjoyed it most was Brooke Shields.
"I have little dents where I've bitten my cheek to try not to crack up," she says.
It seems like whatever gets thrown at Shields, she gamely returns. Few actresses seem as approachable, as sweet or as genuine. At 46 — and as stunning as when those Calvins were new — she laughs easily, ego-lessly and often at her own expense.
She has fans across generations as was evident from the folks waiting to cheer her at the stage door: baby boomers who remember her as a preteen from "The Blue Lagoon"; young parents who saw "Suddenly Susan" or "Lipstick Jungle"; hipsters who see her mock her famous friends in "Celebrity Autobiography"; moms who took her side when she sparred with Tom Cruise over postpartum depression; and little kids thrilled to meet the on-air mother of "Hannah Montana" star Miley Cyrus.
She credits her career's longevity to a combination of perseverance and never stopping just because one entertainment medium was cool to her. She has been a model, appeared on TV in both dramas and comedies, written books for adults and kids, been on Broadway, done cabaret and starred in movies, and she earned a bachelor's degree in French literature from Princeton University.
"I'm stubborn enough to say, 'All right, fine. You're not going to give me that movie role? Well, OK. I'm going to go somewhere they appreciate me,'" she says. "You kind of have to be pursuing it all at once and see where the water's warm."
These days, the water's warm again on Broadway. Shields inherited the part of Morticia from Bebe Neuwirth in late June and will be sticking around at least until — appropriately — Halloween.
Taking over from other actresses is such a familiar hallmark for Shields that she's been called Broadway's Replacement Queen. She offers sagging shows the crackle of celebrity energy, works hard and often leaves them with a much healthier box office.
"I don't believe in replacing somebody," she says. "I can only go in as if I've never done it, never seen it and just been offered this part. Otherwise, you get into a bad no man's land, where you're neither yourself nor something else."
In "The Addams Family," the 6-foot-tall Shields has wriggled into a slinky mermaid gown with a plunging neckline. There is only one dress for Morticia, which gets cleaned once every seven days.
"It's a little ripe at the end of the week," she admits.
She's learned to tango opposite co-star Roger Rees, who plays Gomez. Her high heels sometimes shred the dress and she often needs physical therapy to repair the damage that dancing around on stage leaves. She also gets some of the show's best laughs, revealing a keen comic timing.
"Brooke has this great energy and I think it injects energy into the whole show," says Hoffman. "When she's at her best, she reminds me of a '30s kind of screwball heroine, like a Carole Lombard or something — very pretty and very goofy."
Shields showed her goofy side to an audience of millions at the Tony Awards this spring when she flubbed her lines during an opening number with host Neil Patrick Harris. The teleprompter may have had the wrong material in it, but she was mortified. "It felt like I was having an aneurysm," she says.
During a break in the ceremony, she texted her husband Chris Henchy, who co-founded Funny or Die, for advice. She wanted to flee, but he counseled her to get back on stage and let fly the f-bombs in front of Angela Lansbury and Vanessa Redgrave.
"My husband said, 'Just curse. If you just curse it'll be bigger than the mess-up.' I said, 'Really?' He said, 'Just trust me.' I said, 'OK,'" she recalls. "And he was right. He's a comedy writer."
That sense of relishing the absurd comes across in Shield's dressing room. She's decorated it with things to get her in the mood to play Morticia — an urn, skull candles and a Victorian lace dress displayed on a mannequin. She's working on a collage of inspiring images on one wall that contains both ghoulish images of vampires and strong women such as Marlene Dietrich.
Shields is polite to a fault — and it has sometimes been to her detriment. She confesses that for a long time she was buying tickets to her Broadway shows for random acquaintances. They would approach her and ask for tickets, assuming the star gets tons of them free.
"You're so embarrassed you don't want to go, 'Actually, not,'" she says. "I lost money in 'Cabaret.' Weekly, I was doling out hundreds and hundreds of dollars paying for peoples' tickets."
These days, her family has settled into a new routine. Her daughters — Rowan, 8, and Grier, 5, — visit her at work. They introduce themselves at the stage door as "Morticia's daughters" and Skype when they can't. "I don't get to put them to bed, but they're loving this experience almost more," she says.
Up next for Shields is a TV movie about a legal case over eminent domain that she is executive producing and in which she will likely star. She says she's trying to branch out and be part of the creative process rather than just being told what someone else wants.
"I'm at the stage now where it is no longer interesting for me to leave my life and just become an actress-for-hire — unless I get to spend a day with Meryl Streep. Then I will get her coffee," she says.
Shields is also keen to shed her Replacement Queen label. She recently starred with Raul Esparza in the premier of the Alan Menken-Glenn Slater musical "Leap of Faith" at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles and hopes it might make its way to New York.
The show, based on the 1992 Steve Martin film about a flimflam preacher man, is being rewritten and has a new director at the helm — Christopher Ashley, taking over from Rob Ashford. Shields hopes the retooled version is even better and that she can finally originate a part on Broadway.
"I'm definitely for it. I want to carry that burden. I think I'm ready to do it," she says. "It'll probably be a huge success. Though, at the last minute, they'll replace me and the person will get a Tony."
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits