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Have Faith in 'Maggie'

September 27, 1998|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faith Ford was having a hard time on the set of "Maggie Winters."

After making an indelible imprint for 10 seasons as Corky Sherwood, the perky, somewhat ditzy TV magazine reporter on CBS' hit series "Murphy Brown," Ford quickly segued to center stage and the title role in this new CBS comedy. Here she plays a 33-year-old woman--newly divorced, cheated upon and without a career--who proves that, for the time being and at least in sitcom-ville, you can go home again.

In the opening episode, Maggie returns to Shelbyville, Ind., moves in with her doting mother (Shirley Knight) and takes up with her old crowd of high school friends. They include a happily-married mother of three (Jenny Robertson), a single, acerbic boutique owner (Alex Kapp Horner) and an ex-football star (Brian Haley), still stuck in past glory, who is a local bartender. Maggie herself had been "Most Likely to Succeed."

On this night of filming in Studio City, the flaxen-haired actress with sculpted features, who just turned 34 and is recently remarried, shows that, like golden-girl Maggie, even a five-time Emmy nominee (best supporting actress in a comedy) can make mistakes. Ford flubbed lines, tripped over words, picked up a prop too soon--and clenched her fists in a determination to get it right. At one point, she mumbled with disgust, "I feel a little insane."

Knight--veteran of 60 plays, 70 films and about 300 television series and movies--put down the afghan she was knitting for the scene and delivered a sweet, perfectly toned: "That's because you are, darling."

That broke the tension. Still, it took nearly two hours to shoot two scenes--first with Clea Lewis (Audrey on "Ellen"), who envied Maggie in high school and becomes her boss at the local department store, then with Knight. And there were eight scenes to go.

Like Candice Bergen on "Murphy Brown," Ford now appears in every scene, which can take its toll. "When I'm low in energy, I'll go right to [fast] pacing," she says. "And this is not that kind of a show. It's interaction comedy. It's not joke-joke-joke punch, joke-punch. It's not 'Murphy Brown.' "

Ford also finds that "when [I] stop, the train stops. I'm constantly talking to Candice about it. 'Did you have time to do anything?' I'm used to the show happening even when I'm not there. On 'Murphy Brown' I was in two or three scenes, and now I have 10, sometimes 11 scenes. Or I'm on the phone in them, or my face is."

Now she regularly chats with Bergen, who gives her "big-sister kind of advice. I told her that I have to constantly think that I have to voice myself, meaning opinions. I have a tendency to sort of sit back and observe a lot; I don't want to step on people's toes."

And Candice said? " 'Don't ever feel like that, because [producers] want [input]. Just go forward, because you have good instincts and ideas.' That's hard for women because this is still a man's business."

Ten days after "Murphy Brown" wrapped in March, Ford, who had a deal with CBS to get a first look at appropriate scripts, met with creator Kari Lizer, who is executive producer along with Bob Greenblatt and David Janollari.

"She had no intention of jumping right back into a series," Lizer explains, "but she connected with the script. She and I had similar sensibilities, and she just got right back on the horse. She was aware of the notion that maybe things that are so right for you don't come around that often."

Ford says she connected with Maggie because "she wasn't a dumb character, which was nice, and she was a very strong female character who maintained her femininity. This sort of small-town girl but [with] traditional values is appealing to me. And this is a character that's also going to grow."

Ford is herself a small-town girl. She grew up in Pineville, La., the younger daughter of an elementary school teacher mother and an insurance businessman father. But her sister Suzonne--a prominent radio producer, songwriter and morning deejay in Nashville, who goes by the name Devon O'Day--eclipsed her. In high school, Suzonne was "Most Likely to Succeed"--"she was Miss Louisiana National Teenager, for goodness sakes"-- while Faith, who participated in speech tournaments and school productions, was "Most Spirited." "I was the runt. So I just sort of played down the looks thing--and played up the sort of crazy, zany thing."

After graduation from high school in 1982, Ford moved to New York, got a shampoo commercial and soon landed roles on ABC's "One Life to Live" and NBC's "Another World."

In 1984 she moved to Los Angeles, had guest appearances on "Webster" and "Hardcastle and McCormick," debuted in a CBS series called "Popcorn Kid" (1987), which lasted a month, and did a movie that went "very quickly to video." She landed on "Murphy Brown" after creator Diane English saw her at an audition for "My Sister Sam."

The concept for "Maggie Winters" grew out of Lizer's own experience as a television actress. Now 37, she found that as she hit her 30s, parts began drying up. So she began to write, and found she was good at it. "So this idea of somebody at that point having to start all over again and life not turning out as you expect was sort of the inspiration."

Lizer's husband, Robert Romanus, plays the husband of one of Maggie's old friends.

Both Ford and Lizer insist that "Maggie Winters" is not a "Friends" for 30-somethings. The "life circumstances" are different, explains Lizer, noting that her characters deal with issues such as divorce, children, having children, getting too old to have them.

Ironically, the two women could have met sooner. Lizer had a guest role on "Murphy Brown" as one of the mothers in baby Avery's play group during the 1992 season. But Ford says she was not there that day. She did not have a scene to play.

"Maggie Winters" premieres Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.

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