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From sitcom to suburbia

An Avila mom who hosts play groups in her home and raises money for her church has a Hollywood past.

JACKIE RIPLEY
Published December 19, 2003

LAKE MAGDALENE - It's no big deal for Debbie Nouss to pick up a telephone and get Don Felder of Eagles fame to fly in for a weekend fundraiser. But then Nouss, who has a photo album on her coffee table to rival People magazine, counts Felder among the friends she made during her 10-year acting stint in Hollywood.

As Debbie Gregory, she played opposite the likes of John Ritter, Ted Danson and Bob Saget and had parts in numerous sitcoms, including Empty Nest, Full House and Cheers. But she's probably best-known for her role as the voluptuous Vickie Bumpers, secretary to John Ritter's John Hartman in the 1990's sitcom Hearts Afire.

Despite her West Coast connections, though, many of Nouss' Avila neighbors don't realize the chameleon-like actress on Full House reruns is one of the moms who regularly takes her turn hosting play groups.

"I don't like to toot my own horn," Nouss said as she relaxed at home recently. Wearing car-pool couture and with hair pulled casually back, the 44-year-old Nouss looked less the glitzy actress she once was and more the stylish mother of three young children she now is.

"She's so down to earth and grateful for everything she has," said friend Ali Brady. "She knows all these people but she's very humble about it."

The former actor's Hollywood connections, however, were hard to miss a couple of months ago when Felder turned Nouss' living room into an impromptu Hotel California, much to the delight of about 100 guests who had paid $250 each to attend.

It was part of a fundraiser that garnered $36,000 for Catholic Mobile Medical Charities and the Santa Maria Mission, a University-area mission.

"I was flabbergasted that she even stepped forward and offered to do this," said Sister Sara, head of the mobile medical mission. "It was totally out of the blue."

You might say becoming an actress also was out of the blue for Nouss. As a girl she was never star-struck. Instead, equipped with a degree in journalism from the University of Florida, Nouss spent most of the '80s behind the scenes, producing television magazine news shows in Miami.

She said it was only after working as a freelance producer for Phil Donahue that she considered trying the talent side of the business.

"He said, "You really should go in front of the camera,' " Nouss recalled. She took the talk show host's advice, and at 26, left family and friends in Miami for Los Angeles.

Her first break was a one-line part on the soap opera The Young and the Restless. That led to an agent who guided her into nighttime television.

The next 10 years flew by in a flurry of acting jobs, from sitcoms to commercials. And instead of waiting tables between gigs, at a svelte 5 feet 8, Nouss landed a job wearing designer clothes just to rate how well they wore.

"It was fun, just sitting around in these designer outfits," Nouss said. "What girl wouldn't like that?"

Nouss, though, began re-evaluating her place in the Hollywood hierarchy when Hearts Afire was canceled. Though she had outgrown the ingenue roles, she had not yet grown into roles usually reserved for more mature actors.

"My friends and I would talk about it," she recalled. "Even though we were old enough to have children and be moms, we didn't look like moms."

At 37, Nouss decided to leave Hollywood and return to Florida, where she was about to take a radio job. But first, she visited a friend in New York City who was expecting a baby.

Once again, her life turned on a dime. She was re-introduced to Mark Nouss. The first time had been 17 years earlier. They were students at the University of Florida and had one date.

What a difference two decades can make.

"We really hit it off," said Nouss, describing a whirlwind romance that within a few months led to marriage, and within three and a half years, three children.

"I don't think we would be the people we are today if we had gotten together at first," she said. "We had to become our own people first."

A tax lawyer by profession, Mark Nouss retired after a smart dot-com investment. They both wanted to return to Florida, and chose Tampa because Nouss had clerked here as a young law student.

Though no longer an actor, Nouss still is a rainmaker. While a fundraiser such as the one she did in October with Don Felder might be a bit much to do every year, she plans to continue putting on such events to raise money for worthy causes.

"She's very willing to give back," Brady said. "She'll open up her house and she'll open up her pocketbook. A lot of people don't do that. They don't appreciate what they have."

- Jackie Ripley can be reached at 813 269-5308 or ripley@sptimes.com

Does anything in Full House reruns catch your friends' attention?

"My laugh. They'll say, "That looks like Debbie Nouss. Listen to her laugh. That's Debbie.' "

Who's the guy with the long blond hair and glasses in your photo album?

"Oh, that's just Brian from the Beach Boys."

How did you meet Bill Clinton's brother, Roger Clinton?

"His band would play for the audience at Hearts Afire."

What are your childrens' names and ages?

"Jack Henry, 4 (named for both grandfathers); Casey, 3; and Tallulah, 1.

Why Tallulah?

"If I had a girl I always wanted to name her Tallulah, for Tallulah Bankhead. She was so independent and strong."

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