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WITH AN EYE ON ... : Telma Hopkins, the accidental actress with a message to tell

January 23, 1994|ANN VILLASENOR | Anne Villasenor is an L.A.-based free-lance writer

"I still get mail from people who have been watching me since 'Tony Orlando and Dawn' who were maybe in their 20s then, and now their kids are watching me, but their kids don't know anything about (the group)," Telma Hopkins says, talking about her beginning in show biz.

Her success didn't really hit her until years later.

"When it was happening, it was almost like it was happening to someone else. You get overwhelmed when there's so much going on, and later, you think about it and go, 'Wow. That was really something.' "

Hopkins also thinks her latest TV stint with Cindy Williams on NBC's "Getting By" is really something too.

"I think it's nice to remind people that a family isn't necessarily a mom, dad, two kids and a dog, especially in this day and age when economically we have to lean on other people for support," Hopkins says of the series. "This is certainly an example of one, and it's nice that the family is of Caucasian and African-American descent. I think it's nice to see people getting along."

Born in Louisville, Ky., and raised in Highland Park, Mich., near Detroit, Hopkins as a child knew she wanted to sing. "I never really entertained the thought of acting or being a comedian, probably because Detroit was such a record town. That's what everybody wanted to do, that's what I wanted to do," she says. "I think if you weren't building a car, which is what most folks were doing, you were making records."

Hopkins got her big break in the 1970s when she became one of the founding members of Tony Orlando and Dawn. The group's Grammy Award for "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree" catapulted the group to a TV musical-variety show in 1974 and, soon enough, she was starring in her own special.

"Acting was a fluke," Hopkins says. "I think rather than trying to make us into actors (CBS) did the smart thing and wrote from what they saw. I was the one that was standing around, ready to burst Tony's bubble any chance I got, and Joyce (Vincent Wilson) was the quiet one. It worked because that's who we were: We really didn't have any experience on camera. You could see us learn on the air ... and then when I understood that you could actually get paid for being silly, I said, 'Heck, I knew I was silly for a reason.' "

After landing roles on several television series, including "Bosom Buddies" and "Gimme a Break," Hopkins played Rachel Crawford on "Family Matters" for four seasons.

Now, with "Getting By," Hopkins finds her career mirroring more of herself. A single parent on the show, as she is in real life, Hopkins manages to find time for children in her spare time.

"I like to do things like Career Day because I feel someone looking at me might think, 'Oh, her life must've been so this and that,' but I made my share of mistakes growing up. So when I look at these kids in school, I feel like I have something to offer to them because I didn't come from a well-to-do background," Hopkins says.

"I got married too young, pregnant, and divorced, but I never let that be my excuse for not getting on with my life and trying to shoot for whatever goals I had. You can make mistakes and you can fall down, but you can dust yourself off and not let those stumbling blocks be permanent, too. I feel very strongly about that so I enjoy sharing my history in that way with kids.

"It's one of the few things that makes being a celebrity about something: It gives it some real meaning," she says. "I love the money, and I love the glory most of the time, and I love the work--that's the most fun for me, but it's nice to be able to actually be effective at something other than making people laugh."

"Getting By" airs Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC .

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