Cathy DeBuono Gets Back in the Game

Lesbians and bisexual women have been fond of Ashley Judd ever since she kissed Salma Hayek in Frida, but now we have another reason to like her: She’s the one who encouraged Out at the Wedding‘s Cathy DeBuono to become an actor. This fall DeBuono is part of the new comedy series Exes & Ohs that premieres on Logo (AfterEllen.com’s parent company) on Oct. 8.

But let’s get back to Ashley Judd. DeBuono played volleyball for the University of Kentucky Division I team and spent most of her nonacademic time on athletic pursuits, but she did appear in a student-directed play created by classmate Ashley Judd.

"I didn’t know who she was when I met her," DeBuono recalled. "I grew up in New York, on Madonna and Pat Benatar and The Who. … I had heard of the Judds, but I wasn’t really tuned in."

The two kept in touch, and at a party a few years later, Judd told DeBuono that she should be an actor. "She was such an advocate and said such encouraging things to me," DeBuono said. "I really admired her; she’s a very smart woman. And when someone you admire gives you advice, you tend to remember it."

DeBuono won gold medals in the United States Olympic Festivals in 1991 and 1992, but a knee injury in her senior year at Kentucky ended DeBuono’s volleyball career. While recuperating from her injury, she took Judd’s advice to heart and enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

Like many other hopeful actors, she moved to Los Angeles after graduation, but unlike most of her thespian siblings, she landed a part on a prime-time series within weeks of her arrival, without the benefit of an agent.

A friend of a friend was a second A.D. on Chicago Hope and got DeBuono a job working background. "I was puppy-sitting for her and was bringing her puppy back to her on set one day, and [Chicago Hope star] Adam Arkin saw me in the parking lot. He was directing the next episode and asked me to audition for a guest star role on that show."

Though the role called for a volleyball player type of actor — perfect for DeBuono — the producers were reluctant to cast someone with no experience as a guest star. Instead, they gave her a smaller role as a paramedic, a part she returned to play several times.

Yet another chance meeting led to her next break in Hollywood. While working as a stand-in for the similarly tall Camryn Manheim on Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, DeBuono met someone from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Those producers were looking for a photo double for Terry Farrell, who played Lt. Commander Jadzia Dax. DeBuono won that part and subsequently played several different aliens on later episodes.

"They could use the same actor for stuff like that, because of all the makeup; you never knew if it was the same person," she explained. Eventually she earned a recurring role as Dabo girl M’Pella. "That was such a fun job, going to work and playing in space all day."

During her tenure at Deep Space Nine, DeBuono became inadvertently involved in a real-life drama, one that NBC’s Dateline has documented in the oft-repeated episode "Death in the Hollywood Hills."

A man claiming to be "Brian from Disney" approached her at the mall in Century City and told her she’d be perfect for the new Bond film’s poster. "I knew he was full of s— from the beginning," DeBuono said. "The Bond film was already out, the posters were out, it was done. I knew a bit too much to fall for it."

She was inspired to try to catch him in a lie, so she sat and talked with him for 40 minutes, suggesting that he call her agent to set up an appointment, but he wanted her to leave the mall with him to go to a photo shoot. Instead, she set up an appointment with him for a later date.

"I brought a friend of mine, one of the stunt men from Deep Space Nine, with me. I still didn’t know what I was going to do, but I wanted to catch this guy at his own game." DeBuono and her friend parked in the designated spot and waited, but the guy never showed, presumably not wanting to deal with her friend.

In 2003, DeBuono caught a newscast about the disappearance of actress Kristi Johnson. "It was weird, because you hear stories like this all the time, but for some reason, I was particularly tuned in following her story," she recalled. "Something had me paying attention." When the picture of suspect Victor Paleologus appeared on the screen, DeBuono realized it was "Brian from Disney."

She testified at the trial and afterward met the other women, who all had similar experiences to DeBuono’s, following Kristi Johnson’s story on the news.

"I’m proud that I testified at his trial," DeBuono said. "By the time they found her body, all the scientific evidence had been washed away by rain. The thing that actually got him was that three or four other women and I came forward. He had originally entered a not guilty plea, but after our testimony, he had to change his plea. He was caught at that point."

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