Azure-eyed carol alt, beside whom Helen of Troy might look unkempt, is arguing heatedly in defense of...rats. Not all rats, mind you. Only the ones with which she posed on the cover of the May 1988 issue of Spy magazine, for a story on New York City's rat woes. The cover depicts a squeamish Alt plucking a handbag-sized rodent from her right calf as another furry fellow begins an ascent of her finely turned left ankle.
They were just stuffed rats, right, Carol? Please tell us you didn't let real rats come in contact with your elegant self. Please.
"Of course I did," says Alt in a don't-be-silly tone. "It's not like they were sewer rats. They were domesticated, like hamsters. They were beautiful, until we put oil on them to make them look gross."
After all, what are a couple of rodents to Alt? This is a woman who fearlessly negotiates the aisles of boisterous Madison Square Garden during New York Ranger games, while her defenseman-husband, Ron Greschner, tries to keep the crease clear for the home team. Alt, afraid? Let it be noted that on that fateful night in 1982 when their courtship first flowered, it was Alt who offered to buy Greschner a drink, not the other way around.
This morning, Alt has just returned home from an appearance on Live: Regis and Kathie Lee, a syndicated TV talk show. She is fidgeting like a Huck Finn in Sunday school clothes. "Would you excuse me for a moment?" asks Alt, who has appeared on the covers of almost 600 magazines, modeling some of the world's most glamorous clothing. "I'd be a lot more comfortable in sweats." She emerges moments later. Gone is the khaki miniskirt that had showcased her legs to such fabulous effect. In its place are sweatpants that showcase her legs to fabulous effect.
The subject on Live had been "million-dollar models." Alt, who commands something more than $5,000 a day for posing, was flattered to have been invited, even though, she says, "I haven't modeled seriously in two years." In that time, Alt has intensely pursued her new career. Take a wild guess—is it 1) missionary work in Guyana, 2) neurosurgery or 3) acting?
If you lived in Italy, you wouldn't puzzle long over that choice. There Alt is a big movie star. Over the past two years, she has made six feature films. In 1987, My First 40 Years, in which she starred with Elliott Gould, was one of the highest grossing films in Italy. (O.K., so Alt recites her lines in English, and then they're dubbed by someone else in Italian.) The movies never make it to the States.
Her spaghetti phase is now over. Having decided to sink or swim in the U.S., Alt has turned down several offers from Italian filmmakers since returning from work on her most recent movie, Mortacci, in which she starred with Malcolm McDowell. So far, American casting directors have not beaten a path to her apartment on New York's Upper East Side. She's a model, they figure, and models aren't supposed to be able to act.
During a recent interview at a New York casting agency, Alt was told she would have to do lots of bit parts before she could hope to land a major role. She bristles when she thinks of that conversation. "I was so polite. I said, 'Yes, yes, I don't care if I have to do 100 bit parts,' but the truth is I do care. I carried six major films—don't they realize that?"
If movie work is scarce at first, Alt is prepared to return to modeling now and then "to pay the bills." Acting is a risk, and she wouldn't have it any other way. "I've never lived my life safe," she says. "If I don't take risks, I don't have the adrenaline flowing."
"Give her time," says Alt's manager, Steve Gutstein. "The qualities that made people take to her in Italy will make them take to her here. She's got the acting ability, she's obviously got the looks—on the screen you can't take your eyes off her. She's in great shape. No one will outwork her. And she wants it badly. A coach's dream."
As that analogy suggests, Gutstein is also a sports agent; indeed, he represents Greschner. Today Gutstein's pulling out what little of his hair remains, because tonight the Rangers will attempt to extend a four-game winning streak at the Garden. The phone keeps ringing. Long-lost friends are checking in: "Oh, and by the way, have you got any extra tickets?"
The Rangers are off to one of their best starts ever. "Can you believe Beezer?" says Alt, referring to Ranger goalie John Vanbiesbrouck's extraordinary comeback from wrist surgery. "He wasn't supposed to play until December, and he started at the beginning of the season. And the guys are scoring goals all of a sudden. They won 8-2 the other night!"
It was Alt's acting ability that got Greschner to a chiropractor over the summer, which helped get him back on the ice for a 15th season. Greschner played 51 games last season with a sore shoulder, and just how sore the public never knew. His shoulder continued to bother him, but Alt's attempts to get him to see a chiropractor were unavailing until, as she says, "I reverse-psychologied him."
One day Alt went to a chiropractor because her back was bothering her, and when she got home said, "Geez, I feel the best I've ever felt. I feel great!" This went on for days, until Greschner asked meekly, "Think I could go see the chiropractor?" After getting himself realigned and having his right biceps stretched—atrophy had set in as a result of his shoulder injury—Greschner found he could work out without pain.
"He's in the best shape of his career," exults Alt. "He's laughing out on the ice. No one can get around him." While that might be a slight exaggeration, it's safe to say that Greschner is a leader and a key player in what, when its members are healthy, is the NHL's best defensive corps.
He and Alt met in 1982, just a month after she appeared on the cover of SI's swimsuit issue. Because of her ability to convey so many looks and moods—pouting, tempting, introspective, victimized by a rat attack—she has been one of the most-sought-after cover girls of this decade.
"I'm like a chameleon," she says. "What I do is create a scene and a character in my head. That's how I can look so different in so many different pictures."
In 1986, when Italian director Carlo Vanzina sought a leading lady for his film Via Montenapoleone, he brought a stack of photos to an agent. Each, he thought, could be his star. Virtually all the photos were of Alt.
After Alt agreed to take the part, show-biz types tried to scare her with talk of the hours she would have to work. A waste of breath. A week into the shooting, having worked a series of 14-and 16-hour days, Alt asked the crew, "Aren't you tired?"
"Yes!" they replied.
"Then why didn't you say something?"
"We were waiting for you to say something," they said.
To Alt, it isn't work if she enjoys what she's doing. Of the 149 scenes in My First 40 Years, she appears in 146. As a high school senior in East Williston, N.Y., she had a 98 average, played three sports and edited the yearbook, but was denied an ROTC scholarship to college for being insufficiently "well-rounded"—the first and last time she has been accused of that, we trust. After getting straight A's in her freshman year at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., she was awarded the scholarship but chucked it to pursue modeling.
Alt's acting itch was triggered when she made her first TV commercial in 1980. "I had butterflies the first time I went on the set, something I hadn't felt in modeling in a long time," she says. In 1985 she played Ursala, the blonde bombshell, in a Bob Fosse-supervised revival of Sweet Charity in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Alt had just 20 lines, but the West Coast critics were nonetheless unkind. "They zapped me," she says, smiling. "But I knew I was going out on a limb."
That's where Alt finds herself today. But, as Gutstein would say, she looks good out there.