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Nancy McKeon has grown up

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As Bronx street kid Jo Polniaczek on the popular NBC sitcom The Facts of Life from 1981 to 1989, Nancy McKeon played for laughs. But since then, the 26-year-old Long Island, N.Y.-born actress has raised the dramatic ante, playing it serious in a series of tough-issue TV movies, including A Cry for Help: The Tracey Thurman Story, Firefighter, and This Child is Mine. Most notably, in the fact-based Cry (1989), she starred as a woman left almost paralyzed after a beating by an abusive husband — a gritty role for which many predicted an Emmy nomination. But none materialized, and McKeon says there have been times, however infrequent, when she has still had to convince producer types she;s no longer Facts’ tough-talking Jo.

Nevertheless, the actress, now a redhead, has no complaints. ”I’ve been lucky,” she says. ”The audience has allowed me the chance to grow up and to be taken seriously.” Viewers will get a new opportunity to take McKeon seriously in CBS” Baby Snatcher, where she plays a woman whose child is kidnapped. It sounds totally downbeat, but McKeon says, ”The woman I play refused to be a victim. She established a hotline for people who’ve had their children taken from them. It’s a pretty inspiring story.” And this summer McKeon will appear in her first feature film: She has a cameo role in Where the Day Takes You (coproduced by her 27-year-old brother, Philip, who starred as Linda Lavin’s son on Alice), as a strung-out heroin addict.

Why seek out all that suffering? McKeon, who has a penchant for TV soaps, raunchy jokes, and on-set water-pistol fights, gets serious:”Think of it this way. I might cry for six hours during filming but I figure the women I’ve played cry 24 hours a day. So I don’t have it so bad. I’ve had a pretty full life.”