In a corkscrewy way, it's lucky for actress Mare Winningham that Carrie Morrow, daughter of actor Vic (Combat) Morrow and his ex-wife, screenwriter Barbara Turner, left home at 15. Young Carrie hitched up with a carnival, married and split from one of its managers, then rejoined her parents in a heartening reunion. Mom adapted the story into a TV movie, Freedom, that airs on ABC this week. And, in a twist fluky even by Hollywood standards, Winningham landed not only the starring role but also Carrie's estranged husband, Billy Mapel, technical adviser for the film's carny sequences and now Mare's roomie.

"I was pretty much in awe of the tall, silent young man who worked his butt off," notes Winningham, 22, whose own lovely labors haven't been lost on L.A. casting agents. In only four years—without professional training, contacts or accepting hackwork—she has shot to prominence. Last year she won a Best Supporting Actress Emmy as the daughter of hard-pressed farmer Dennis Weaver in Amber Waves and extraordinary critical praise as the teenage ex-hooker in Off the Minnesota Strip. She hasn't become jaded by recognition. "I'm so happy to be on a set, you can read it all over my mug," grins Mare (rhymes with flair), who is also refreshingly modest about the mug in question. "I've never been in the 'pretty girl' group," shrugs Winningham. "I'm not ugly, but in my family we've always been talkers, not lookers."

But it was listening that drew her to Mapel, 26. "We both lived at Barbara's house during filming and we would have these fireside chats," Winning-ham recalls. "His observations were so astute, I found myself falling in love." Ditto Mapel. They later visited his home—an 80-acre commune with tepees in Northern California—"because Billy wanted me to see him in his element," Winningham explains. "His friends were real gracious to me, despite the fact that I'm from L.A., which is one strike against me in life." Billy seems willing to overlook such geopolitical differences. "One of the things I like about Mare is the permanent stuff—her instincts," says Mapel, who is sharing her rented two-bedroom L.A. canyon home. "She always seems to do the right thing at the right time."

Or at least remarkably often. "I had a breeze of a childhood," says Winning-ham (née Mary), daughter of a Northridge, Calif, college athletics administrator and his high school English teacher wife. While still in high school, Mare donned pink cat-eye glasses and sang Here, There and Everywhere to win $516.32 on The Gong Show. But her real break came when she appeared as Maria in a Chatsworth High performance of The Sound of Music. Agent Meyer Mishkin, who had similarly discovered and signed Richard Dreyfuss, caught her act and handed her his card. She began working right after her 1977 graduation and soon found herself in an episode of James at 15, the mini-series Studs Lonigan (she played a tomboy, "the only guy on the block with bumps on his chest,") and in a youthful marriage to actor A (that's his name) Martinez, now 32. They separated a year ago and remain close friends. "He was the man I loved, and I proposed to him," says Mare, who feels the separation of constant location work contributed to the breakup.

Meanwhile ABC noticed Mare's talent and signed her for a two-movie contract at $100,000 per. Though she shares the wealth—buying a horse for one sister and Transcendental Meditation lessons for a brother—Winning-ham's pleasures are unextravagant: moviegoing, songwriting, "talking nonstop with friends" and walking her misnamed female mutt, Dwayne. Disappointed by her first feature film, Paul Simon's One Trick Pony (with her first nude scene), she next portrays a teenager with heart disease in the upcoming Threshold opposite Donald Sutherland, who affectionately describes her as "a lovely person with a mean left hook." "I'm fascinated by 15-year-old-girl roles because I'm in love with that time," says Winningham. "I'm past that problem stage—but I can still remember it."