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Strong Medicine : PRAIRIE DRAMA BUILDS A BIG AUDIENCE AFTER A HESITANT START ON CBS

August 22, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five days before production began last year on the hit series "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," the actress cast to play the strong-willed Dr. Michaela (Mike) Quinn pulled out of the show. CBS went on a frantic search for a "name" to star as the good doctor living in Colorado Springs, circa late 1860s, with three adopted children.

Enter Emmy-winning Jane Seymour. Though a popular TV miniseries and movie star, she had no desire to do an hourlong weekly series. Seymour had her sights on a comedy. "They offered me a lot of one-hours ever since I have been in America," says the British-born Seymour. "I didn't even want to consider it."

But Seymour, 42, needed cash. "I had a financial situation since my divorce (from third husband David Flynn) and I had to make some money fast," Seymour says. "So my agent called around and said, 'Jane is willing to work. Do you have a two-hour movie?' "

According to "Dr. Quinn" creator-executive producer Beth Sullivan, casting Seymour was "just a fluke." The actress happened to be looking for work just as the producers happened to be looking for Dr. Quinn. And so it happened that on the Monday that the week of shooting was to begin, Seymour's agent called CBS President Jeff Sagansky, who said, yes, indeed, he had a movie for Seymour. But there was a catch: It was a series pilot. On her agent's insistence, Seymour read the pilot that evening. On Tuesday morning, she told CBS she wanted to do it. On Wednesday, she reported to work.

"I have always chosen projects--the ones I'm most proud of--because something got me. 'War and Remembrance' was one of those; 'East of Eden' was one of those; 'Somewhere in Time' was one of those," Seymour explains during a break on a very hot, dusty day at the Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills, where Dr. Quinn re-creates the Old West. "I love pieces which are about the human condition, people overcoming adversity and trying to make life better for anyone."

She saw a lot of herself in Dr. Mike. "It depicts a woman trying to be a mother," Seymour says. "Let's face it, there are millions of us out there. Whether you have your own birth children (Seymour is the mother of Katie, 11, and Sean, 7) or adopted children, the whole thing of trying to bring up kids and deal with their growing-up problems ... that's one whole issue I found interesting."

The actress also found it fascinating that just like Dr. Mike, her father was a doctor. "I was watching major surgery since I was about 11, which is, of course, most unusual," she says, observing her current husband, director James Keach, set up for the next scene. "So I would see blood and guts everywhere. When I read this, I totally related to it. How did anyone know?"

Or how did anyone know that she and Dr. Mike both have two sisters. "It wasn't until way late in my life I learned that women didn't have it as easy as men," Seymour says. "My mother was very much the strength in the family. My father totally respected her. I and my sisters were all involved in what my parents were doing for a living."

No sooner did "Dr. Quinn" start production last year, though, than CBS pulled the show from the fall schedule. "It was unbelievable," Seymour says, incredulously. "We were really depressed. How can you say we are going to do this and then suddenly take it away from us?"

CBS finally premiered the series on New Year's Day. The critics trounced it, but it became an instant ratings hit--the most popular new series of the season. "Certainly, I didn't think the critics would love it," Seymour acknowledges. "There would be people out in the audience who would get it like I got it, in the heart, or they wouldn't."

This year, Sullivan promises Dr. Mike's relationship with sexy Byron Sully (Joe Lando), the mountain man who is Dr. Mike's friend and confidante, will develop into something more than friendship. "But the way we are going to handle it has been mapped out for some time with a lot of care and thought," Sullivan says.

Translated, that means don't expect Dr. Mike and Sully to jump in the hay anytime soon. "She is a virgin," Sullivan says. "That's something in those days was no oddity given her circumstance and choices in life. That's something we are going to gently try to remind people. There's a sexual repression she suffers from, and a fear."

Seymour believes that Dr. Mike and Sully's relationship reflects the '90s mind-set. "In the '70s, on the first date you were in bed with him," she says. "That's no longer applicable, so people are developing a new way of relating to other members of the opposite sex. I think what's really neat between Sully and Michaela is they are complete opposites, yet they both have a mutual respect for one another's strengths and weaknesses. That's what a relationship is about. I'm just hoping people get that."

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