Life is more fun outside the morgue, says Leslie Hendrix.
The actress played medical examiner Elizabeth Rodgers for 19 years and more than 200 episodes in TV's "Law & Order" and its many spinoffs, all the while giving solemn appraisals on causes of death.
But as the self-involved Masha in the Hartford Stage production of Christopher Durang's comedy "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," Hendrix gets to embrace life, cut loose and find her inner diva.
"A woman who is massively self involved, who takes all the air out of the room whereever she goes, why do I like that so much?" she says laughing. "And I get a boy toy, too. I could play this broad forever."
Hendrix says the change of her image is long overdue.
"To be able to do something like this after years of being typecast as the woman in the business suit, the judge's robes or the medical coat is liberating. The role is a juicy, ripe peach waiting to be plucked and devoured. I just adore it. But then again I have always adored playing train wrecks."
One of her most notable devastated-woman roles was as Blanche DuBois in 1992's Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," understudying for Jessica Lange and going on in the role.
Around that time she auditioned for the series, "Law & Order," which was only two years old. She was hoping for a guest lawyer role but instead landed the part of a stoic medical examiner.
"I was scared to death at first because I had to learn all this medical jargon and play a scene with Chris Noth and Paul Sorvino. I hadn't done any TV so I was just trying to remember my words. I guess [the producers] saw something in my usual defense mechanism — which is to be a smart-ass —and I got the part. A few months later my agent called and said they wanted me again for that character."
Hendrix' gig was not meant to be recurring but the producers of the series — known for its habit of changing casts to keep the show fresh — kept calling her back. "It wasn't until I had been doing it for about 10 years that I thought, 'OK, I guess I have this job.' "
Throughout all the years and all the various "Law & Order" series — where she was one of the longest running characters — Hendrix remained a "day player," signing separate contracts for each and every appearance.
"It was the best part-time job for an actor on the planet," says Hendrix who was last at Hartford Stage in the play "The Story of Life" in the '90s. "I would have preferred to be a regular [with a seasonal contract] but it allowed me to do other things — and for a long time I had to."
"Law & Order" is also noted for not delving into the personal lives of its characters and Rodgers was no exception. Even when Hendrix was "big as a house" when she was pregnant 16 years ago with her first child, her condition wasn't mentioned.
Still, she imagined her own back story to her character "though it changed, depending on my mood or the day. Sometimes it was pretty skanky. In my mind she was not a 'people person' and she has really bad luck with men. I saw her a single mom and all she did was go to work and go home.
"And Jerry [Orbach, who played Det. Lenny Briscoe] was my imaginary boyfriend," she says. "We had this flirtation between the two of us in the morgue that was never acknowledged. He did his quips and I did mine and that's all there was but the fans all got it."
She says she discovered her character liked opera when a character detail was gleaned in a late episode of 'Law & Order: Criminal Intent' after Orbach died in 2004. "It was an here was an episode concerning the opera. And I say to Chris Noth — who was Jerry's work partner years ago on the mothership [referring to the original 'Law & Order' series] — 'Lenny Briscoe took me to the opera and it was one of the best nights of my life.' "
In "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," David Gregory plays the ultimate boy toy: dazzlingly handsome, stunningly fit and the object of more than a few characters' affections.
The actor knows just how that feels.
He has played more than a few hot hunk roles, including the slick producer in the last years of "One Life to Live," a charismatic bad boy in "Deception" and as a bare-chested, long-haired, loin-clothed Fabio-like character named Sebastian in Airborne commercials.