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Designing 'Minds'

September 29, 1996|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's something about "Dangerous Minds" that attracts pregnant actresses.

Michelle Pfeiffer was in the family way when she starred as ex-Marine-turned-high school teacher Louanne Johnson in the 1995 hit film.

And Annie Potts was about to give birth to son Isaac Harris "Harry" last December when her good friends, producer-writers Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider, first approached her about doing the series version, which premieres Monday on ABC.

The series follows Johnson's career as an English teacher in a special program at a northern California high school for at-risk students.

"My friends were having a baby shower for me," explains Potts, 43, as she munches on a salad in her pastel dressing rooms at the ABC Studios in Hollywood. Potts asked Frolov and Schneider, formerly of "Northern Exposure," about their next project.

"They said, 'We are thinking of this show, "Dangerous Minds." ' I hadn't seen the movie and they said, 'You might want to take a look at it. It would be a really good role for you.' "

The actress breaks into a wide grin. "I was just two weeks away from giving birth and I hardly needed a new project," she says drolly. "But I did look at it and, of course, fell in love with it. So I pursued it. And here I am."

Potts' courageous, tough, inspiring and compassionate Johnson is an about-face from the delightful and wickedly funny ladies she played on the CBS sitcoms "Designing Women" and "Love & War."

But Potts doesn't believe it will be a stretch for her fans to see her in a dramatic light. "All I can do is get in here and do my best work," she says. "I feel that if anybody has me stuck in their minds as a comedian, I think this will get them unstuck"

In Monday's premiere, Johnson arrives at a new school and quickly begins influencing the lives of her troubled students. "I think it was important to establish the principal children and their strengths and weaknesses and her relationship with them," Potts says.

In an episode Potts was shooting on a recent afternoon, Johnson inherits a problem student. Her fellow teachers expect him to misbehave and be expelled. "What Louanne discovers, what no one else has taken the time to learn," she says, "is that he is dyslexic. He is a problem because he thinks he's stupid."

Potts hasn't met the real Johnson but did talk with her on the phone. "She lives in New Mexico and just recently married," the actress says. "She and her husband are putting together a school on a ranch, and it's for kids like we are dealing with. [Teaching] is a vocation; it is more than just being a teacher. It's her calling. She has to. I don't think she has a choice."

The actress says she had Louanne Johnsons in her life. "I had at least a half-a-dozen teachers who were always sort of there whenever I started to be adrift or whatever. There was always somebody there."

And, she adds, "there are a couple of people for me who are [role] models. One of them is a high school teacher. She wasn't my teacher, but she is one of my best friends. She teaches drama in Washington, D.C. and this is her life; this is how she gets involved with her kids."

Potts reports that her 15-year-old son, Clay, is excited about his mother's new series. "For the first time in his life, he wants to hang out on a set," she says with a warm smile. "One of the reasons is he loves the kids. They are a little older and they are hip and he's digging it."

In fact, Clay is working on the show. In every episode, Mom explains, there is a cartoon on the bulletin board in Johnson's classroom that supposedly was drawn by one of her students, pegged to the subject being covered that week. It's Clay who is drawing them. "They are paying him and he's very excited," Potts says.

Also working on the series is Potts' husband, James Hayman, who is one of the producers. He also directed the first episode and is slated to direct several more. "He has a great gift with actors," Potts says. "And I'm very picky."

Youngest sons, James "Doc," 4, and baby Harry visit their parents on the set almost daily.

"The 4-year-old has a tricycle and he rides it up and down the hall," Potts says. "The baby gets pulled in his wagon and they ride around outside. They love it. The kids are missing us at home, but they are trying to arrange the schedule so I get one day off an episode."

Though the conditions, she says, are not ideal, both Potts and her husband felt "Dangerous Minds" was too important not to do.

"We feel we have the opportunity to be involved with children on a larger scale," Potts says. "I think it can really help change children's lives. I have been entertaining for a long time, but my real passion has always been running home to my children. So to be able to be here and do this show and have my own children here when they can, I think it is a real rare circumstance and I'm going to enjoy it."

Potts says "Dangerous Minds" has a valuable lesson to impart.

"Louanne Johnson isn't the only teacher in America who is doing this. There are other teachers out there. It gives the students something to believe in. I think these minority kids who come from such difficult home situations and environments, to know that there is somebody who is saying, 'you are totally worthy of life, embrace it; I embrace you'--I think that is a monumentally important message."

In other words, "Dangerous Minds" follows in the tradition of other odes to the teaching profession, Potts says: "It is 'To Ms. With Love,' it's "Ms. Johnson's Opus,' or whatever you want to call it. But it's a good thing."

"Dangerous Minds" airs Monday at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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