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Things Are Looking 'Up'

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Sharon Lawrence is not some fortysomething frump. We say this because so egregious a misconception is frequently directed her way. ”The other day I was at this bridal boutique with a friend who’s getting married,” says Lawrence. ”The owner looked at me and said, ‘You could play the younger sister of that woman on NYPD Blue.’ ”

It’s no wonder fans do a double take: As Sylvia Costas, assistant DA on the acclaimed ABC drama, the 35-year-old actress has not only suffered the mood swings of her character’s husband, Andy Sipowicz, she’s also endured four years of dowdy wardrobe, minimal makeup, and unflattering camera angles. Lawrence guiltlessly waves goodbye to all that gritty realism with her new NBC sitcom, Fired Up, which offers countless opportunities to vamp as downsized fashion-obsessed promo exec Gwen Leonard (see review on page 72). While the series gives the Broadway veteran her first shot at stardom (in TV’s coveted Thursday-at-9:30 slot), Lawrence was at first concerned her flamboyant character was too self-involved to like: ”She’s no lovable Mary Tyler Moore,” says Lawrence of the character she’s come to appreciate. ”She’s more Betty White.”

Fired Up is also the first sitcom for Kelsey Grammer’s Grammnet Productions. As an executive producer, the Frasier star, who plays a radio mogul in one episode, calls his style ”passive production. You don’t notice my presence. I sneak around … and insinuate my taste.” Mark Feuerstein, who costars as Gwen’s partner’s brother, recalls one rehearsal that belies those claims of subtlety: ”There was a decision to make about whether we should go for a joke or appreciate a brother-sister moment. [Kelsey] stood up and said, ‘Screw the joke. It’s not that funny. It’s better that we see this guy cares for his sister.’ It wasn’t working, and he made us realize it.”

Whether Fired becomes a Frasier or a flop, Lawrence will continue to develop projects with NBC, thanks to a comfy seven-figure deal (which includes two TV movies). The Peacock beat out ABC and CBS in landing the former Raleigh, N.C., Junior Miss after her hilarious turn on a 1996 episode of Caroline in the City. ”The element of surprise was as much the catalyst as anything,” says Lawrence. ”People who knew me from theater were delighted, but they’d seen it before.”

The daughter of Earlyn, a preschool teacher, and Tom, a reporter for the CBS affiliate in Raleigh, Lawrence planned to follow in her father’s footsteps but ultimately preferred working in summer stock to journalism classes at the University of North Carolina. She headed straight to Broadway after graduation, spending eight years in chorus-girl then featured-actress parts. A guest spot in an episode of the Steven Bochco drama Civil Wars was her small-screen break; the casting director remembered her when looking for an actress to play Blue‘s Costas. Although Lawrence is eager to continue making appearances on the acclaimed cop drama, she is understandably frustrated with the writers (often criticized for neglecting the show’s female characters). Since Sylvia had a baby last season, the writers have lost interest, says Lawrence. ”She’s [no longer] mysterious. I don’t even think they sense a sex appeal anymore.”

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