September 10, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

FOX, 8-9 PM – Debuts Oct. 25

Jennifer Love Hewitt was about to get fired. She just knew it. She’d been dreading the day Party of Five producers Chris Keyser and Amy Lippman would call her into their office to tell her that her character — cuddly-soft Sarah Reeves — was being written off the show, and last summer, that time was upon her.

”I was really upset and dealing with it internally,” shares Hewitt on a warm August evening, just before shooting one of her final PO5 scenes at an L.A. high school. ”I thought, ‘What am I going to do when they say I’m fired? Do I let myself cry?’ My mom was like, ‘Try not to think about it, my little sweetheart.’

”So I got there, my heart pounding, I sat down, like, ‘This is it — I’ve done something bad,’ and Chris and Amy were like, ‘We need to talk to you.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my God … ‘ And they’re like, ‘We don’t want Sarah to be on Party of Five anymore.’ I was like, ‘Okay, fine. I’ll just pack up and leave.’ And they were like, ‘No, we want her to go to New York on her own show!’

”And I was like, ‘I’m sorry — could you repeat that 40 more times so I can make sure I heard you correctly?”’

Jeez, Love, whaddaya need, a team of U.N. interpreters? Look at the shrieking teen fans. The burgeoning movie career. The Neutrogena commercials. You’re a star now. We’re talking first name in the opening credits. The biggest dressing room on the set. And come Oct. 25 — when Sarah ditches the Salingers for New York in search of her birth father and herself in Fox’s PO5 spin-off, Time of Your Life — it’s all you, babe.

”Jennifer … Love … Hewitt … ” savors Fox Entertainment president Doug Herzog. ”Those are three words I love to say.”

”I still don’t understand — why me? Why am I getting my own show?” says Hewitt, sounding as perplexed as she did that fateful day. ”I’m not fighting it, but I don’t understand it at all. And if I had the chance, I’d sit down with the executives and go, ‘What are you doing? Are you sure? Have you really thought this through?”’

Now that you mention it, Keyser and Lippman weren’t initially kicking up their heels at the concept — a suggestion from their agents — either. A spin-off? For Party of Five? Thanks, but no angst. Not only were they worried about damaging the franchise by removing one of the key Salinger family members … but for godsakes, how much more self-examination and terminal diagnoses can one group of orphans go through?!? ”When you think about the next thing you want to put your name on, you don’t say, ‘Let’s do a version of something we’ve already done,”’ says Keyser. ”Our immediate reaction was, ‘This sounds tacky, like we’re just capitalizing on PO5.”’ Yet right after waving off the idea, the two producers suddenly turned to each other and uttered the same word: ”Love?”

No question, a Hewitt-helmed series looked like a can’t-hardly-lose proposition. Her popularity was soaring (case in point: the I Know What You Did Last Summer franchise). Her departure would open up the storytelling on PO5 without disrupting the family unit. (Besides, did anyone really want to see Bailey and Sarah happy together for 44 more episodes?) Better still, the groundwork for a spin-off had already been laid in the second season, when Sarah discovered that she’d been adopted. Indeed, all the pieces were falling into place except one: Hewitt. Would she be willing to sidetrack her film career to sign on for another half-dozen years? ”If it had been any other producers, I probably wouldn’t have been interested,” says Hewitt. ”I love Chris and Amy, and being on something else with them — I knew that it was going to be fun and great.”

Funny, those weren’t exactly the first two words out of the media’s mouths this summer. The already high-profile series developed Is this show in trouble? syndrome after word leaked out that the pilot — an overearnest fable with scant secondary-character development — would need to be reshot. To some extent, Time was a victim of, well, timing: Fox chief Herzog had just replaced Peter Roth, who’d signed up Keyser and Lippman last summer to produce the show. Plus, the net’s new thinking was that a punchier-paced version of the series would make the perfect companion piece for that other ultrasensitive-babe-against-the-big-city series, Ally McBeal. “Chris and Amy got caught in the middle of a transition in creative direction at the network,” sums up Herzog. “We wanted to make [the show] a little more relevant, a little less whimsical and Dickens-like.”

So Keyser and Lippman started rewriting (un)like the Dickens, spinning a more grounded tale about a ready-for-anything Sarah who waits tables at a karaoke bar, rooms with a wannabe actress (Jennifer Garner of Fox’s short-lived 1998 Keyser/Lippman drama, Significant Others), and finds romantic potential in a struggling musician. (And not just any struggling musician — That Thing You Do!‘s Johnathon Schaech, who’d been cast in another Keyser/Lippman pilot, Partners, a CBS cop drama that wasn’t picked up for fall.) Throughout the Time tweaking, though, the goal of the show remained unchanged. “In PO5, there are a lot of people who talk about how they’re feeling at any given moment and how they expect to feel later and how they may have felt,” says Lippman. “One thing that’s different about this series is that people do things instead of reflect on them. If PO5 is about trying to figure out how to move forward as a family, this is about that next phase in your life, where you figure out, ‘Who am I independent of a family, and how do the friendships I make in the world turn into family-like relationships?'”

While the jury remains out on the new incarnation (the pilot was still being reshot at press time), Love is making one bold guarantee: “It’s not just going to be a chick show — I won’t let it be,” insists Hewitt. “I’m not an extreme girlie girl. I’m a girl, definitely, but I’m not super-girlie. And it won’t be sappy because New York is not a sappy place. I think the show is going to have a certain urban toughness to it. And we have a lot of really hot girls on the show. We’ll make sure we show bellies and things like that, so the guys should be okay.”

Frankly, if Hewitt appeared on TV holding up microchip-component diagrams for an entire hour, guys would be okay. “She’s extraordinarily relatable,” says Lippman. “She can be your best friend, she can be your girlfriend. Anyone can watch her and say, ‘I really want to be like her. I’d love to look like her and dress like her, and at the same time, I understand her.'” And as Keyser points out: “She’s really good with crews. Crew members are lining up to marry her. There are pretend weddings on the set.”

No time for nuptials this season, though. In addition to headlining Time (which, by the way, she produces), Hewitt’s producing and starring in ABC’s upcoming Audrey Hepburn biopic. She’ll play an obsessive record exec in this fall’s big-screen comedy The Suburbans. She’s about to start surfing lessons in preparation for a flick that her own production company will make, The Girl in the Curl. And she’s mulling offers to record another album. So, Love, is there any other medium you plan on conquering? She pauses. “Miming,” she offers thoughtfully. “I know a lot of people who might be quite happy if I was quiet for a while.” Yeah, but they all work for competing networks.

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