You might think that Tom Cruise doesn't have a single fan left, but you would be wrong. We found one. Her name is Rosie O'Donnell. Rosie may not be the last person who still loves Cruise--Katie Holmes? his mother?--but she's probably the only one who blames America's favorite talk-show host for starting his troubles. "I saw him doing the couch jumping," says Rosie while nursing a beer at a Manhattan restaurant. "I wasn't mad at him. I was mad at Oprah. Oprah, couldn't you have said, 'Tommy, come here! Don't jump'." Rosie says that if Cruise had lost it on her show, she'd have sat him down and retaped the segment. Of course Rosie has been swooning over "my Tommy" for years. But why stand up for Cruise now that he seems, well, crazy? "For me, to love someone is not to get rid of them when they do something you don't think is appropriate," O'Donnell says. "I love him, and love is eternal."
Unconditional love--it's a sweet thought, and one that could come in handy. It's been four years since O'Donnell walked away from "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," and she's boarded the crazy train a few times herself since then. There was Rosie the magazine, which spawned the ugliest hairdo since Sally Jessy Raphael, and a $100 million lawsuit when she quit. She produced a musical with Boy George that lost $10 million and some of her Middle America fans, thanks to its in-your-face setting in the London club world. At one point, Rosie's partner, Kelli, took away her computer and phone for a year to shield her from all the bad press. This week O'Donnell debuts as cohost of ABC's "The View," which is in itself a gamble. Rosie arrives while the show is finding itself after the departures of Meredith Vieira and Star Jones, who was fired and left in a huff shortly after O'Donnell was hired. Then there are the women who still sit at the "View" table. Rosie made enough trouble for herself when she flew solo. Does she have any idea how to play well with others?
O'Donnell says that she doesn't harbor any bad feelings toward Jones. In fact, she's kind of sympathetic: "Fame is a drug, and it distorts your perspective, everyone's perspective, from Tom Cruise to Star to me--every one." That said, she's not sorry that Jones won't be sitting next to her every day. Rosie was a guest on the show frequently over the years, but she's long refused to be on with Star. "We had a little sort of discussion when Martha Stewart was in prison, when I questioned why it is women don't stick up for each other the way other minorities do, such as O. J. Simpson being accused of murder still had the support of the majority of the black community. She was not happy with what I said or the way I said it. The next day, she told me she didn't appreciate what I said. I told the bookers, 'I'm glad to fill in if you need someone--if she's not there.' I don't want to fight with her." But O'Donnell insists she had nothing to do with getting Jones fired. "I would love to think I had the kind of power to say 'Fire her'," says O'Donnell. "But what would my motive be for ruining her life?"
Well, what was her motive for blogging about Star's gastric-bypass surgery when Star herself wasn't ready to talk about it? Rosie says she was just being honest. "As a comedian, an artist and a fat celebrity," she explains, "you talk about the things that reverberate in you." That's Rosie--she says what she thinks, and in no-nonsense Long Islandese. It's what made her the perfect TV talk-show host, though over time it did belie her reputation as "The Queen of Nice," as a NEWSWEEK cover dubbed her 10 years ago. "I remember holding that up on the air and going, 'This is going to bite me in the a-- one day'," O'Donnell says. And it did. Would anyone describe Rosie as nice anymore? In a recent Gallup poll inquiring about people's perceptions of celebrities, Rosie had a 35 percent favorable rating, behind Geraldo Rivera and ahead of only Star Jones herself. "There are people who think that I'm strident and bossy and much too New York and left-wing liberal," she says. "You get what you paid for, and there's no way that I'm going to change."
O'Donnell turned her back on fame in part so she could be herself and not take any grief for it. "My life was so fast," she says. "I didn't have time to sit home and go to Target and be among the real people, which is what I am." She's spent most of her "retirement" holed up and taking care of her four kids, ages 3 to 11. The O'Donnells live in a splendid house right on the Hudson River in upstate New York with a postcard view of the Tappan Zee Bridge in the backyard behind the swimming pool. Rosie actually owns a cluster of buildings there. There's the main house, decorated tastefully in navy and white, with cookie jars and snacks lining the counters of the huge open kitchen. Next door, in a house flying a rainbow flag, Kelli works planning cruises that bring gay families together. And in the small house closest to the river, Rosie has spent most of the last four years hiding from her fame.
She calls the building her "craft house," because it's where she paints. Most of her pieces look a little like Basquiat expressionism on speed--full of heavy, colorful swirls and splatters. In fact, the whole craft house looks like that. She's painted the floor, the fridge, even the drum kit in the corner. It's like the room of a teenager who has no parents, which, in a way, is what Rosie is. Her mother died when she was 10, and her father really didn't bother much with Rosie and her four siblings after that. "Our kids know that Kelli is the sane one and I'm the nutty one," she says. "Chelsea did say to me once, 'When I grow up I'm going to marry someone crazy.' And I said, 'Really? Why?' She said, 'Because I'm more like Kelli so I'll marry someone more like you.' I said, 'Is it bad crazy or good crazy?' And she said, 'Mostly good'."
When you sit with O'Donnell in her sprawling, sunny kitchen, she really does seem like an instant best friend. She's clearly a lot happier now than she was when she packed up four years ago. She's tanned and relaxed and she looks downright lovely in her photo-shoot makeup and a T shirt that reads "I Am Art." Apparently, she looks pretty awesome underneath, too. She just filmed an episode of "Nip/Tuck" in which she plays a lottery winner who splurges on a makeover. Naturally, Rosie had the obligatory sex scene with Julian McMahon. "There was this part where they could see my tube top and finally I just said, 'I'll pull it down.' And he said, "Nice t--s.' I said, 'Thank you. You're getting the best view'," Rosie says. "He's my new Tommy." (For the record, Rosie was never actually in love with Cruise. "It never went to sexual," she says. "My Angelina Jolie crush was much more sexual than my Tom Cruise crush ever was.")
As you can see, Rosie will talk about anything, from her feud with the "Letterman" show--her offer to fill in for the host when he had a heart attack was somehow taken as a play for his job--to her long battle with depression. She tells a poignant yet hilarious story about calling Oprah on her private cell phone late one night right after Columbine and crying hysterically. "I went on medication shortly after that phone call," says Rosie, who adds that Oprah couldn't have been nicer about being disturbed by a weeping lunatic. "And that day I erased her number from my address book. I just don't need to have it."
It's as if O'Donnell has got four years of chitchat stored up and ready to go. Of course, that's also how she gets herself in trouble. If you read her blog, a chunk of the e-mails come from people who hate her for being outspoken about politics or gay rights or the other 100 topics Rosie feels passionate about. But it's one thing to take some heat on a blog. It's another to do it every day on national television. Is she ready? "When I saw the billboard in Times Square, I thought, Oh my God," she says. "Sometimes it feels exciting. Sometimes it feels like--what's the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing and expecting a different result."
The idea to hire Rosie for "The View" came from executive producer Barbara Walters, who has been friends with her for years. Walters was attending the April premiere of the documentary "All Aboard! Rosie's Family Cruise," about the gay-family cruises. She saw something most of us haven't seen in ages. "There was the warm, thoughtful, intelligent, charming, funny Rosie I've always known," says Walters. But when she wanted to hire Rosie for "The View," she had to work to sell the idea to the network. "There were discussions with the ABC brass in which we talked about the new Rosie--not the woman who might have been aggressive or belligerent, but the woman I had seen that night," says Walters. "There were some concerns about which Rosie we were getting." (Walters says the show will hire a fifth cohost once Rosie has settled in.)
One of O'Donnell's goals on "The View" is not to be so bossy, to learn to ride the bus, rather than drive it. So far, the experiment has been ... a failure. Take the show's new commercials. "They wrote a skit about a bus. I was, like, 'OK, can you let me write it? Give me a day'," said Rosie. She got her promo, which ends with Walters's telling the ladies, cleverly: "You're all stars to me!" But Rosie thought the whole thing looked too grainy, and she immediately complained on her blog. "I saw the new view promos/found myself/in the position/I loathe the most/powerless." That entry made the gossip pages, which didn't please her boss. "I didn't like the blog," says Walters, who wants O'Donnell to stop posting, at least about the show. "I'm counting on Rosie's intelligence and sensitivity and humor. This is, after all, an entertainment show. It is based on people who like each other and are having a good time, not on people who are arguing and unhappy." A few minutes after Walters spoke to NEWSWEEK, she called back. She had just received an enormous bouquet of flowers. The card read: "Barbara, I only want the promos and the show tobe great. And I love you. Love, Ro."
So maybe Ro hasn't changed all that much. One of the wonderful things about her is that she's always identified with the little people. She's more a fan of Oprah's and Cruise's than one of them. She doesn't travel with a posse, other than Kelli and the kids. You really can walk up and talk to her. "I used to use security a lot because you're supposed to be scared," she says. "And then my therapist said, 'When was the last time a celebrity was killed or nearly killed?' In your lifetime, you can name three: Theresa Saldana, Rebecca Schaeffer and John Lennon. You probably know three teachers who were killed'." Fans will sometimes even sit on the beach at the edge of her home waiting for her. She doesn't care. "You beg people to be interested in your life, you get to have all this splendor because of it, and then you tell them to go away," she says. "To me it seems unfair."
If Rosie has learned anything while she was away, it's how to manage fame--or at least that fame needs managing. "I haven't had it for four years in the intensity that I had it before," she says. "I think a balance would be nice." She plans to leave work every day in time to get the kids at school. She's also very involved in her charity, Rosie's For All Kids Foundation, which has given $3 million to Katrina relief and $20 million more to others. "And she's done this all very quietly," says Elizabeth Birch, who runs the foundation. "She says if you talk about it too much, it will take the magic away." She's signed on for only one year at "The View." "I don't know if I can do it, or what effect it's going to have on my family or on me," she says. "I feel like I'm testing the waters. I'll try to make it work, but if it doesn't, that's all right. It's hard sometimes for me to ask people, I'm back. Love me again. It feels a little greedy, like I'm taking too much." Will she make it? Who knows? But she knows one thing about the journey this time: she plans to enjoy the view.