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12 HELEN HUNT

‘TWISTER’ SISTER. SPUNKY SPOUSE. SHE’S A BREATH OF FRESH AIR, WEATHER OR NOT.

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On a team of tornado-chasing daredevils in Twister, she was the kind of tough, game, professional chick — competent and approachably sexy — that scientists want along for the ride. In a marriage to a neurotic, joke-cracking New Yorker on NBC’s Mad About You, she’s the kind of upbeat, self-possessed wife who reassures neurotic, joke-cracking, would-be romantics that there’s hope for the future. Helen Hunt often reminds viewers of someone else — a stellar girlfriend, a great friend, a secret crush, Jodie Foster — but this year she reminded us that discipline and what high school guidance counselors used to call a Good Attitude pay off: Twister’s half-billion-dollar worldwide gross turned the 33-year-old actress into a full-blown movie player, and her first Emmy as Best Actress in a Comedy Series underscored her contribution to Mad About You’s success. (Ever gracious, she thanked five-time winner Candice Bergen of Murphy Brown for removing herself from the competition.)

Last season, Paul and Jamie Buchman survived major marital strains. This season, Hunt is shown to terrific advantage in pregnancy. This year, too, in acknowledgment of her creative partnership with a smooth-running team that includes costar and executive producer Paul Reiser and exec producer Larry Charles, Hunt gets a producing credit next to her name.

”It’s a collective sensibility,” Hunt says of her efforts to shape the relationship between Jamie and Paul — and with it, the long-lived success of the show, which, in its fifth season, frequently wins its Tuesday-night time slot against Roseanne. ”I’m not really doing anything different than I’ve done all along — sort of a system of checks and balances — only now I’ve got a title for it.” Such levelheaded understatement may come from a lifetime spent in and around acting and showbiz — she was a child actor, after all — but don’t let that fool you. ”I had quite a bit of input into Twister, too,” she says. ”I wasn’t going to make my character quiet and demure, since I’m not either.” It may have been a boys’ club in tornado-ville, she points out, ”but they did put a woman in the middle of it, didn’t they? And Twister is about Mother Nature — not about, say, a bomb.”

These days, Hunt scuttles from her Mad soundstage to the movie set of Old Friends, which she describes as a ”complicated romantic comedy” from James L. Brooks, in which she costars with Jack Nicholson. But she feels no need to dump TV for big-screen fame. ”I love getting to do them both. Old Friends is a wonderful part, and I would be miserable if I couldn’t do it. But I also think of the TV show as a five- or six-year movie.” And when the Buchman baby arrives, probably in time for next May’s ratings sweeps, ”it will still be about the couple, and how to introduce a baby into their lives,” she assures. ”Jamie will be full of opinions.” And viewers will still be full of affection.