Julia Campbell is displaying the black-and-blue marks that dot her arms and legs, bruises she picked up playing Vicki Springer in Fox Television's screwball-masochistic Saturday night comedy, Women in Prison. During rehearsal Queen Kong, a 6'2" lady wrestler who plays a fellow inmate, was supposed to merely strangle Campbell. "But she got carried away and actually started to jump me," says the 5'8", 123-lb. actress. "Nothing personal, but she's at least twice my size. I had to shout to the crew, 'Guys, I'm getting beaten up here!' "

Hey, sometimes taking the lumps is part of the job—especially when the job is playing the lead role in the quirky Fox network's quirkiest hit yet. A campy con-com, Women in Prison probably sets a new high in low humor ("If I had $5 for every stinking man I ever met...," a prostitute mutters, only to realize, "I do have $5 for every stinking man I ever met"). But it's also set Campbell, 25, on a starmaking course. She has a low-key, doesn't-stand-out-in-a-crowd personality that makes her perfect for Vicki—an absurdly decent woman condemned to an environment in which nice girls truly finish last, if at all. Vicki is a housewife whose husband—a lawyer ostensibly defending her on a trumped-up shoplifting charge—instead sends her up the river so he can continue philandering. And so she ends up in a place where, to quote from the show's theme song, "while other girls are making dates, you'll be making license plates."

As the show's innocent, Vicki provides the audience with an identifiable entry into an alien world—a world where your cellmates will kill you for a bottle of Ripple. Besides Queen Kong, who makes occasional guest appearances, there's the aging gun moll (Peggy Cass), the scheming murderess (C.C.H. Pounder), the predatory lesbian hooker (Antoinette Byron), the genius embezzler (Wendie Jo Sperber) and the vicious guard (Denny Dillon) who yells, "All right girls, new meat!" as she introduces Campbell to her roomies. "This part requires a certain je ne sais quoi," laughs Campbell, "but I love my job."

At least she's well acquainted with hard knocks. Very well acquainted. An Army brat raised primarily in Arlington, Va., Julia was studying to be a ballet dancer when she developed scoliosis, curvature of the spine. "They put me in a neck-to-hip brace when I was 11," she says. "It was big, with bars. It held me up. I'd wear it for 22½ hours a day, then take ballet lessons for the other 90 minutes. I thought nothing else could go wrong when all of a sudden my spine started to crush my right lung. My center curve was 78 degrees off center and it was almost destroying me." Surgery at age 15—and 11 months in a body cast—corrected the curvature, but, says Campbell, "there was no way I could ever dance again. I had to stop riding horses. I can't ski. I can't even ride roller coasters—nothing that puts a strain on the spine. So I had to refocus my energies."

A theater class in high school provided the new focal point. "I would work on every single show," she says. "It was not at all good in terms of getting my schoolwork done." But it did get her into Webster University, in St. Louis, where she acquired her BFA in drama. Campbell graduated almost directly into ABC's Ryan's Hope, playing dancer Katie Ryan for a year and a half. She switched soaps in 1985, appearing as murderess Courtney Cap-well on NBC's Santa Barbara until becoming, appropriately enough, one of the Women in Prison.

While working on Santa Barbara she met actor Bernard White, 28, who now plea-bargains with Susan Dey as a public defender on L.A. Law. "I was in the throes of a rapidly evaporating romance," says Julia. "Bernie was a really good friend, and he kept telling me everything would work out. Little did he know that I was falling in love with him."

It was mutual. In July Campbell and White will begin serving their own sentence with each other. After the wedding they'll continue to live in Bernie's apartment. Furnished in a sparse postgraduate style, the two-bedroom digs are located at the upscale south end of Hollywood, in the same art deco building where Mae West once lived. Some of the tenants think West's ghost still haunts the halls, but maybe they're just hearing Campbell's pets: a puppy named Caliban, a long-haired cat named Bianca and a lovebird named Butthead. Julia and Bernard spend most of their spare time at home or seeing movies at the local multiplex. "We're not total shut-ins," says White, "but we're just not party people. We like to do real simple things. Sometimes it feels good just to stay home and relax."

That's an option the Women in Prison would just about die for. In future episodes, driven by their hunger for freedom and men (not necessarily in that order), the caged gals will make repeated attempts to break out. None, of course, will succeed. "If we did, the show would be over," says Campbell. "I want to stay behind bars for a long time to come."

  • Contributors:
  • Doug Lindeman.