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Ruehl can relate to role in 'Mom'

Mercedes Ruehl in a scene from Lifetime's "Mom at Sixteen."
Mercedes Ruehl in a scene from Lifetime's "Mom at Sixteen."
Chris Reardon, Associated Press

Lifetime's "Mom at 16" is designed to provoke parents and children to talk about teen pregnancy. In real life, 30 percent of girls/women in America get pregnant before they're 20.

The TV movie, which premieres tonight at 7 on Lifetime, revolves around 16-year-old Jacey (Danielle Panabaker), who gets pregnant. Her strong-willed mother (Mercedes Ruehl) insists on moving to a new town and raising the child as her own. The stress gets to Jacey, who turns to a school counselor (Jane Krakowski).

It didn't take a TV movie to make Ruehl think about out-of-wedlock pregnancies or adoption, however.

"Actually, I had events in my life that brought me to the understanding of the movie, rather than vice-versa," she said. "When I was very young . . . I became pregnant and I wasn't either economically or emotionally ready to raise a child. And my son was adopted."

Ruehl wasn't a teenager at the time (she was in her mid-20s), but she can relate to the 16-year-old in the TV movie. In 1974, open adoptions were unheard of, and she only located he son after he turned 21 — she managed to get a letter to his adoptive parents, who passed it along to him.

"We've become very close, but it's been a struggle waged daily. . . . We've done a lot of work together, a lot of therapy together," Ruehl said. "We've had fights. We've almost lost each other. It's a great relationship."

After he learned her name, Ruehl's son mentioned it to some college friends. "His friends said, 'We know this actress. She's in "The Fisher King" ' — the film for which she won a 1992 supporting actress Oscar.

"So he went out by himself late one night, rented 'The Fisher King' and watched the whole thing, not knowing if his mother was Amanda Plummer or myself. Can you imagine it? I mean, we laugh about it now. He must have been just biting his nails (wondering) which one of these nuts is my mother?"

Their first meeting played out as a comedy of errors, too. Ruehl was flying to Boston to meet her son, but was unable to land because of a blizzard.

"Finally, I got there," Ruehl said. "The manager thought I was having an assignation with a younger man. She wanted to get in the room to see what was going on. It was insane."

Ruehl, who has four other children, used a counselor to help her and her son work things out. And the fact that she had no contact with her son for 21 years made her rethink the idea of a closed adoption.

"The idea of an open adoption, which is portrayed in this film, was rare, if it existed it all," she said. "But . . . the year I found my son, I also adopted a baby. I worked with a woman who was pregnant and took care of her as she waited the last three months of her pregnancy. And we have an open adoption.

"So far, it's been a very successful relationship. So I guess I know (about adoption) from both sides."

As for Ruehl and the son she gave up for adoption, they "love each other very much. And I'm so blessed. . . . And he's the godfather of my adopted son."


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com