Her tiny frame is folded into a chair. Her slender fingers massage an empty cigarette holder. And her enormous eyes are widening in horror.
"I have to have my left side facing the camera," Carol Kane pleads in an untamed lilt. "I don't want a total profile, either. Let's just take the picture and get it done, okay?"
Why would an actress who has spent 20 of her 33 years in "the show business" -- gliding from stage to screen to TV and leaving a trail of hookers, immigrants, a dizzy maid, a terrorized baby sitter, a pair of Emmys and an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in her wake -- care about which side faces the camera?
" 'Cause it looks better," she giggles, offering an explanation understandable to no other human on the planet.
Well, maybe one other. "Strange animals, these actors," chuckles her father, architect Michael Kane. She doesn't have a publicist, but dad is at her side for protection. "Doesn't like to have her picture took," he beams.
Her lensophobia is extreme -- she once dragged her chair across the stage to present her left side to viewers of "Late Night With David Letterman" -- but it hasn't stopped her from creating two of TV's more memorable mademoiselles. She won two Emmys for her wild-eyed, steely willed immigrant Simka Gravas on "Taxi." And her latest collaboration with "Taxi" refugees and "Cheers" creators Glen Charles, Les Charles and James Burrows has produced the wacky and romantic southern belle Nicolette Lou Bingham, who writes for a soap opera on NBC's short-lived "All Is Forgiven" (whose final episodes begin a three-week run tonight at 9:30 on Channel 4).
"I love my character," Kane says, momentarily forgetting the alien force advancing toward her. "God, lights and everything, I can't believe it," she despairs.
"But anyway, I knew right away that Nicolette must look like a quote unquote underline exclamation point woman. You know she'd just be shocked to see the way I'm dressed."
She waves a hand toward her green fatigue pants and pointy-toed wicked-witch shoes. Both "dames" wear the same large silver earrings, but Nicolette wouldn't be caught dead in the black silk blouse splashed with huge white polka dots.
"She would just be sorry for me and the fact that I had not been properly raised," Kane says. "I believe she would just not go into a department store until they regain their senses, you know, and if it's not in this century she just will never go into one.
"The form, the female form," she drawls, "must be hiiiliiighted to advaaantage."
Draped in any of her scoop-necked, high-waisted creations and perennial dark stockings, Nicolette is one of the zanies created to wreak havoc in the life of soap producer Bess Armstrong. "Ohhh!" she shrieks upon meeting Armstrong's character. "You quoted Tennessee Williams. That means you read! I'm Nicolette Bingham, will you be my best friend in the world till the day we diiie?"
Kane considers the show's writers "the best in television" and loves the physical comedy. "Jimmy Burrows put me on the floor a lot, which I really like. I feel once I get on the floor I'll be okay," she laughs, twisting a curl and shooting another nervous glance in the general direction of the camera. "Daddy, don't look at me -- I've got enough pressure! I feel like I'm at the doctor and everybody's watching me get a shot."
Burrows says that after working with Kane on "Taxi" and "Cheers," "we wanted her for 'All Is Forgiven' from the beginning. You can cut to Carol at any moment and there's something there." Yet Armstrong is the focus of the show, because she's a "lady who's more middle of the road."
Certainly the phrase "middle of the road" has never been used to describe Kane. "Way off center is how I would describe her," Burrows says. "When I worked on 'Taxi' I was awestruck that she would even consider doing TV."
But Kane's big-screen successes haven't dampened her desire to appear on the small one. "You don't have to make a choice between movies or TV or whatever," she says. "The choice is finding the material that's good, and do it wherever you can do it."
Kane was born in Cleveland, then moved to Paris with her jazz musician mother and architect father when she was 8 years old. After a brief stay in Haiti, the family settled in New York.
"I went to see a play in Children's Theatre when I was like 7 and decided that's what I wanted to be," Kane says, "and I think I've pretty much had blinders on since then." She attended Manhattan's Children's Professional School and toured with Tammy Grimes in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" when she was 14.
"I didn't have any friends who weren't acting when I was little," she says without a trace of wistfulness. "I lived at the theater. It takes your time in a fanatical way, and you just sort of have to be with people who understand that that's the way your time's going to be used."
But she admits that she "never felt young when I was 16. I never felt young at all, in fact. I feel younger now in a lot of ways."
At 17, Kane was one of six actors cast in Mike Nichols' "Carnal Knowledge." She played Art Garfunkel's 18-year-old "love teacher," who shed silent tears at the sight of Jack Nicholson's frightening biographical slide show. Heady stuff for a teen-ager, but Kane shrugs it off.
"I had a real sense when I did that movie of being home," she says. "I felt that I was supposed to be where I was at that time, and that may sound, I don't know what that sounds like, but that was the sense I had, I felt good about myself and very at home."
A starring role in "Wedding in White" followed, and a brief appearance in "The Last Detail." Then, in 1975, came "Hester Street" and the first taste of recognition.
Kane auditioned for the role of Gitl, the naive but determined Jewish immigrant who tries to adapt to her husband's ways when she joins him in turn-of-the-century New York. In fact, she auditioned six times for the role, four times in English and twice in Yiddish.
"I didn't speak Yiddish," she says. "In fact, each of us who were under very serious consideration worked with a coach that director Joan Micklin Silver provided and phonetically got certain scenes together.
"As I get older I start to look back at the field that I've crossed and realize that it was a mine field," she laughs. "I mean, if someone had told me, 'Well, yes, you get to do this movie 'Hester Street,' but first you have to audition six times and you'll be up against 38 other girls' -- well, then I just would have said, 'I'm not up for that.' "
Silver, of course, would have been more than a little dismayed. "I love Carol madly," she raves. "She's one of these actresses who just fills her role. I saw her in the Canadian film 'Wedding in White' and thought she was Canadian. She was physically nothing like the character of Gitl, but once she started playing it you couldn't imagine anyone else playing it."
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agreed, and at 22, Kane (along with Janet Gaynor) was the youngest woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. No small feat for a film shot in a Lower East Side studio on a budget of $375,000. But Kane insists that she never got carried away with such trappings of "success."
"You have a limouseeene the day of the awards," she says, "but when I was at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and this is true, I mean it seems like a good situation comedy or something, but I was living at the Beverly Hills Hotel doing publicity and once a week I would go from there down to the unemployment office. I was flat broke -- I couldn't afford my dress." Futher evidence of her level-headedness abounds. Daddy -- "just the repulsively proud father" -- promises that "Carol's always been a lovely lady." Silver recalls a celebratory pre-awards lunch when Kane said she "hoped we wouldn't lose that feeling if we didn't get the award." And when Rona Barrett asked Kane what she thought her chances of winning were, Kane replied, "All I've got pulling for me are two Jews from Cleveland."
*She would need every ounce of this pragmatism in the days to come. She lost the award and spent the next 12 months waiting for the phone to ring -- evidently there wasn't a huge demand for hollow-eyed Jewish immigrants. But Gene Wilder and Woody Allen recognized a comedic talent. Wilder cast her as his wife in "The World's Greatest Lover," and she played Alison Portchnik, the wife-to-be who wryly thanked Allen for reducing her to a cultural stereotype in "Annie Hall."
"She's a terrific actress with a wonderful flair for comedy," Allen says.
Kane took that flair to the tube and parlayed a one-shot appearance on "Taxi" into a longstanding, award-winning role as the wife of Andy Kaufman's Latka Gravas. The helpful Kaufman took her on a now-legendary dinner date at a Chinese restaurant, where he insisted that she converse in the frighteningly lucid gibberish he had created for his character.
"I was scared to death speaking this language that was something known only to him," Kane says. "It sort of surprised him that it seemed difficult to me, because he was so like a child."
"Andy said the language came from an island in the Caspian Sea," says Burrows. "We never asked which one."
As Kane continued in comedic roles her Lady Godiva mane became shorter, her eye shadow lighter and her penchant for black clothing, well, less obsessive.
"I happen to think I look best in black," she laughs. On "All Is Forgiven" one of the characters asks her whether she has five black dresses or wears the same one every day. "I think it's the writers' little dig at me, 'cause I do tend to get on a theme there visually and stick to it. But in this show I have a bright orange dress, and I want that down for the record!"
Although NBC failed to renew "All Is Forgiven," Kane won't be out of work for long. She plays the girlfriend of Dustin Hoffman in the recently completed "Ishtar" with Warren Beatty and will appear in "Jumping Jack Flash" with Whoopi Goldberg. She hopes to do a stage production of Sam Shepard's "Curse of the Starving Class" with beau Woody Harrelson of "Cheers" and Christopher Lloyd of "Taxi" and "Back to the Future."
And then the woman Bette Davis says she'd most like to see star in her film biography will keep right on pounding the pavement.
"For very few people is there a time when you quote unquote make it," Kane explains. "I worked with a woman recently who's very, very famous who told me she just auditioned for a movie, and it takes my breath away to think that this person auditioned for a movie. What does she mean? Well, she means the same damn thing I mean when I audition for a movie."
She stares out the hotel window, slowly twirling a curl. "Life is very cyclical," she says evenly. "And my career has been very-high-very-low, very-high-very-low, and I think it'll probably keep on rolling that way."