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Quirky Roles Suit Her Just Fine : Television: Jane Leeves finds a part that fits like a glove: 'Frasier's' offbeat caretaker.

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Ah, to be young, British and Jane Leeves. For a twentysomething comedic actress beginning to make a name for herself in America, what could be better than having your own genuine cult following?

"I was in the doctor's office and this man screams out across the room, 'Aghhh! You're the vurrgin !' " an embarrassed Leeves recalled of her hilarious two-episode stint on "Seinfeld" last season--in which her pristine character was "deflowered" by John F. Kennedy Jr. Flattered just to be recognized, Leeves instinctively yelled back to the aghast waiting room: "I'm not really . I just play one on TV."

Such "virgin sightings" by "Seinfeld" die-hards happen all the time, Leeves sheepishly admitted. But the auburn beauty may be best remembered for her recurring role on "Murphy Brown" as Miles Silverberg's (Grant Shaud) quirky girlfriend Audrey Cohen for the past four seasons. (Her departure from "Murphy Brown"--just before the couple was to tie the knot--will make for a "very traumatic" season for the overstressed wonder-boy producer, according to a spokeswoman from the series.)

Nowadays, Leeves is ready for a new adventure on a new network--a starring role on "Frasier," the "Cheers"-spinoff that premieres on NBC Sept. 16.

She will play Daphne Moon, a half-psychic English caretaker with plenty of homespun advice and comedic relief for the strait-laced psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) and his cranky father (John Mahoney). Fans who remember Leeves as Miles' Audrey will get much of the same in the daffy, offbeat Moon.

"There's always something odd about the people I play," Leeves said.


Over cappuccino in a Studio City coffee house--no afternoon tea for this Brit--it's easy to see why Leeves loves comedy. Her wit is sharp, her tongue sharper. Between sips and cigarettes, she poked at everything from Hollywood self-aggrandizing ("We're not curing cancer . . . (we're) entertaining people--and we're lucky to be doing it") to her distaste for the trappings of fame ("I can't imagine ever having anyone doing my laundry").

About the only thing Leeves seemed particularly serious about was not taking herself--or her career--too seriously.

"I know that I can do comedy, that I just have an innate understanding of it. I feel like I've got a foot in the door," she explained.

Her bosses on "Frasier" agree. "She has excellent timing, and she will find ways of giving you a line that you never thought of," said Peter Casey, one of the creators and executive producers.

Yet Leeves cautiously resists labeling "Frasier" her big break. "Once you become really trendy, you've got to come down sometime. . . . You'll go out of style eventually."

What she won't say, television critics and advertising agencies have. Many have pegged "Frasier" as one of the season's best bets, and its 9:30 p.m. Thursday time slot following the popular "Seinfeld" certainly won't hurt the show's prospects.

Leeves said she feels a kinship to the part of the down-to-earth, good-intentioned Daphne Moon. "I knew it was mine the minute I read for it. It fit like a glove."

The feeling was mutual: "When (Jane) came in (to read for the part), she just hit it out of the ballpark," Casey said. "It was really an easy part to cast."


Although she says she avoids the typical Hollywood social scene, Leeves counts Faith Ford ("Murphy Brown") and Valerie Bertinelli as among her best friends--in fact, all three jointly hosted NBC's new morning chat show "Hosted By. . . ."

Such ventures--and plans to branch out into film and theater--will be put on hold for a while, however, with several months of taping for "Frasier" ahead of her. But that's fine with the actress who wants the time and the freedom to pick and choose her roles anyway.

"I can't see me ever being cast as a decoration on some man's arm. And that's a lot of what's out there," she said. "For me to do a part, I have to find a part of myself in it."

Leeves wasn't always so sure of herself.

She came to the United States from East Grinstead in the south of England with a 21-year-old's naivete and $1,000, poised to play the starving artist-model routine in New York. But she grew restless after "a couple tough years" of paying her dues to no avail. So Leeves went home to England and got her start in show business doing sketch comedy with Benny Hill.

With experience and newfound confidence in tow, she gave America a second try. This time, the former ballet dancer studied acting, got an agent and soon landed her first film role in William Friedkin's "To Live and Die in L.A." Leeves starred as a flighty tart in the mid-1980s syndicated series "Throb" before joining "Murphy Brown" in its second season.

If all her roles to date seem to have such a thoughtful, yet eccentric communality to them, don't think Leeves doesn't realize the similarities of her life and her art. But please, don't tell her she's doomed to be just another flash-in-the-pan British gag.

"I think I am stereotyped somewhat, but that's the nature of this business. It's frustrating, because I really would like to tackle some meaty dramas," she says--then sighs, as if to remind herself to be patient. "Those will come."

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