Would her erstwhile Charlie's Angels fans weep, her parents shudder, the Moral Majority hurl invective at the screen? Would Making Love, the controversial new film in which husband Michael Ontkean leaves her for Harry Hamlin, tarnish her halo? Absolutely! That's one reason Kate Jackson, always tagged as the "smart" Angel, accepted it. "I was turning into a comic strip," she says of her TV fame. Now her career gamble is paying off. Even critics who find the script shallow have hailed Making Love as a breakthrough film that treats homosexuality in a mature fashion, and most were pleased by Kate's performance. "I'm now starting to hear things about my acting I've always dreamed of hearing," she enthuses. "People tell me I've grown up."

At 33, the coltish Kate has certainly grown professionally: She's the first Angel to successfully make the perilous leap to film. Against all odds, Making Love is a box office hit, playing well across the country and not just in large cities with substantial homosexual populations. Kate thinks the film's avoidance of the S&M subculture (the focus of 1980's Cruising, with Al Pacino) legitimizes the subject. "It's not a soapbox film that says, 'Be gay, it's best,' " Kate points out. "It's not meant to change anyone's basic beliefs."

Jackson claims, however, that the film made her more aware. "To be gay is not to be bad," says the onetime Southern belle. While growing up in Birmingham, Ala. she "believed that all homosexuals lived in New York." Expecting resistance from her parents, she gently broke the news of the film's plot to her mother, who astonished her by mentioning a hometown couple who had the same experience as the movie's characters. Says Kate: "I figured if it could happen in Birmingham, it could happen anywhere."

That's as close as she has come to such an unusual triangle, but Jackson knows the pain of a failed marriage. She was in the process of divorcing actor Andrew (Code Red) Stevens, her husband of three years, when Making Love began filming. "My emotions were easy to tap," says Kate. She pretended in her marriage too. "The union lasted as long as it did," Kate explains, "because intellectually you know it's over long before you face it emotionally."

Kate and Andrew, six years her junior, had married hastily (after a six-week courtship) and secretly (at the home of James Taylor and Carly Simon on Martha's Vineyard) in August 1978. She tried to overlook the age difference. "But sometimes I wanted to say: 'Wait until you're a little older and you'll understand,' " she remembers. Competition didn't help either. Kate was always the more bankable star. After leaving Charlie's Angels in 1979, she and Stevens produced and co-starred in a TV remake of Topper that got reviews like those of Heaven's Gate. Jackson says her marriage was just as much a disaster. "It was a mistake and I corrected it," she explains. "We found we were not really friends. And if you're not friends, you don't have a prayer. That's why we're not friends now, because we never were."

Even before her divorce became final last July, Kate had been adjusting to life alone. "It was scary at first, and hard," she admits. Her life previously had been a well-organized whirlwind. Shortly after arriving in New York at age 19, she won a nine-month stint on daytime TV's Dark Shadows, then hit Hollywood with four years on The Rookies, followed immediately by three years on Charlie's Angels. Every hour of her day was accounted for. Leaving the Angels (" 'I quit.' 'You can't quit, you're fired,' " is Kate's version of her conversation with the producers) was the turning point. The jiggle grind had forced her to lose Kramer vs. Kramer to Meryl Streep and left her with frazzled nerves. "It's temperament, not temper," she defends. "Not being able to do my best leaves me frustrated and angry."

Post-Charlie, Kate "wanted to sort of disappear so I could come back later and it would be like starting fresh." A quicky movie, Dirty Tricks, didn't help, but Making Love and a recent appearance onstage in L.A. in Key Exchange have provided the needed career adrenaline. She's just finished a fall TV special about a bike tour in China and plans to be co-executive producer and star of a feature film about a blind woman photographer for her own production company. "I've taken care of my money, so I can be selective," Kate notes. "I won't do anything I don't just love."

Straightening out her personal life continues. The Beverly Hills home she and Stevens bought in 1980 is now on the market for just under $1 million. "The house is a loose end left over from the marriage," says Kate. "I'm uncomfortable in it." In fact, she's hardly lived in the four-bedroom mini-mansion since the split, preferring several rentals. Kate shuns the big Hollywood party scene. Her Mercedes 450 SL has been driven only 24,000 miles since 1976. "I lead a sheltered life," she says. For fun, she skis near Park City, Utah (where she also has a home), takes portrait photos of friends, or lugs her video camera out to tape her favored subjects—old folks in Santa Monica. She prefers places where she isn't recognized. "I don't like to be grabbed and pulled," she says. "It scares me."

What doesn't scare her, surprisingly, is another trip to the altar. "I do believe in marriage and the family unit, in having that source of strength," she says. Right now there's just "a guy here" (writer-producer Tom Mankiewicz) and "a guy in New York" (a businessman who works in his family's color-pigment firm). "I'm not ready to make a commitment," cautions Jackson, but she wants children. "If I couldn't have one, I'd adopt—a little person, not a baby."

Along those lines, former Angel and new mother Jaclyn Smith, 35, remains a close pal. A new friend is Sherry Lansing, 39, head of production at 20th Century-Fox, the outfit behind Making Love. "I'm crazy about her," raves Lansing, the only female major studio chief. "There are not too many women I can talk to about the loneliness we sometimes feel, the ups and downs." For Kate, dealing with those pressures is part of the maturation process. "From the time I was 5, when I started school, till I was 30,1 was told what to do. The pattern was never broken. Now it has been," she says, smiling. "I think that's why I've grown up."