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Cynthia Stevenson of ''Bob''

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There was a time, right before she got the role as Tim Robbins’ underappreciated, dumped-for-another-woman girlfriend in The Player, winning raves and revving up her professional life, when Cynthia Stevenson was ready to pack it in and move back to her mom in Vancouver. ”I was going to study (psycho) therapy,” recalls Stevenson, whose early just-get-by Hollywood jobs included being a page at CBS and standing around as a stand-in on Diff’rent Strokes. ”The only thing I wanted to do was therapy or work with children.”

Now Stevenson, mid-20ish (she won’t reveal her age), plays a child, albeit an adult one — Tricia, the game and quirky, eccentrically myopic daughter on CBS’ Bob (she’s Bob Newhart’s first TV offspring). She also has a Player-size role in the feature film Watch It, due out in late January — a ”really nice look at the problems of dating in the ’90s,” she says, in which she costars with Peter Gallagher, John McGinley, and Suzy Amis. (”At least in this movie I get to have a little vindication,” she hints.) In all her work sparkles the characteristic Stevenson mix of vulnerability, practicality, and a touch of fizz.

”I think there’s a place I go to where I know I’m in the center of a character,” says the Oakland, Calif.-born actress, whose early professional years of improvisational theater around L.A. served her well as Jennifer Bass, the fictional talk-show host in the short-lived 1990 syndicated TV series My Talk Show. (EW critic Ken Tucker said then that Stevenson deserved to become ”the first cult TV star of the ’90s.”) In fact, it was while improvising with L.A.’s Groundling Theatre in 1988 that Stevenson met Groundlings Bill Steinkellner and his wife, Cheri Eichen, who later, as writers on Cheers, brought their pal in for a few episodes as Norm’s smitten secretary, Doris. And who later still, as cocreators of Bob, grabbed her to join the cast, making good on a promise to find a permanent place for her in their sitcom universe as soon as they could. ”Bill and Cherie told me, ‘You just open your mouth and that’s Tricia,”’ says Stevenson, who, unlike her single character, is married — since July — to Tom Davies, an assistant director whom she met on the Watch It set; they share a home in L.A. and a dog and cat. ”I mean, Tricia is really very close to me. She’s really available, really up, really sweet. And she’s also a bungler. I like that.”

Bungling never looked so appealing.

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