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IT IS A TUESDAY AFTERNOON IN LATE FALL, AND Courteney Cox Arquette has arrived in Hell. Actually she's in a New York City taxi. But the car, tangled in traffic, has a faulty transmission, and for Cox, 31, that's close enough. Like chef Monica Geller, the character she plays on Friends, Cox is an avid problem solver, just this side of compulsive. "Do you hear that?" she asks her fellow passenger as the cab whines in protest.

Sure, Cox is a star pulling in around $500,000 per season. But she is also a dedicated if-you-want-it-done-right-you-gotta-do-it-yourselfer. If her $65,000 silver Porsche Carrera back home in Santa Monica had this defect, Cox might dive into her well-stocked toolbox and tinker with the differential. Here in the cab, all she can do is lean forward and whisper the words that have broken so many men's hearts: "Your transmission is slipping."

Listen to the woman, buddy. For years, Cox's career inched along (a Noxzema ad), lurched forward (her two-year run on Family Ties in 1987-89), only to stall out in unmemorable Hollywood duds. But these days, Cox is in high gear. She was in New York filming Commandments, a dark comedy in which she plays a troubled housewife opposite Aidan Quinn, due for release in 1996. That's on top of Friends, a gold-plated hit that has been in the Nielsen Top 10 the entire season.

Friends execs and cast members give Cox a lot of credit for helping the program thrive. "Courteney centers the whole show," says Friends executive producer and co-creator Marta Kauffman. "There's this real human earthiness to her that [balances out] the silliness we do." Kauffman originally envisioned Cox as Rachel, Jennifer Aniston's role. But at her audition in April of 1994, Cox convinced everyone that she was Monica. Cox's sister Dottie Pickett says, "I don't think they know how close they got it. The character's neat, capable, controlling."

"And a little sarcastic," adds Cox. "So I'm like Monica. Big whoop."

It is a big whoop to the cast, who see her, in Aniston's words, as "the mother of the group." Says Aniston: "She's explained that we have to watch out for each other. She knew the pressures of being on a hit might drive us all apart." Friends cast members tend to use Cox's dressing room as a kind of student union, where they hang out, gossip and abuse each other in a comradely way. "Hey, freak show," Matthew Perry says, dropping by after a recent rehearsal. "Hi, freak face," Cox retorts.

Lately, Cox has needed the company and the support. Four months ago she and Batman star Michael Keaton, 44, ended their 5½-year relationship. Cox says it was a joint decision. "It's the most important relationship I've ever had, and I think he's the most wonderful person I've ever met," she says, as tears well in her eyes. "We still love each other." They were an intensely private couple who rarely appeared together in public. "The things we liked to do were all in the neighborhood," Cox says—window-shopping on Montana Avenue near her Santa Monica home, going to the movies, cooking at Cox's place (her specialties are pasta primavera, garlic chicken and shepherd's pie) on the six-burner commercial stove Keaton gave her as a house-warming gift in 1992.

Throughout their relationship, Cox and Keaton practiced their movie scripts together. "He always came up with the most clever ways of making a line funny," she says. "No matter how upset or pissed off I was, Michael could make a little face and crack me up."

Still, they never made enough of a commitment to move in together. Cox's half-carat diamond ring is actually "my grandmother's," she explains. Although she and Keaton split last July, she's not sure what finally drove them apart. "Nothing about our relationship was ever simple," she says.

So far, Cox says, she has not tried to fill the breach in her love life. "I'm not even thinking about that stuff now," she says. "I don't live a soap opera life. I sleep on the edge of a king-size bed. I don't snore. I don't even turn over." She laughs at tabloid reports that had her rebounding into the arms of actor Christian Slater. "Christian and I have been friends for eight years," she says. The gossip started, she says, when both attended a book party in September for Gore Vidal and had dinner together later that night.

The 5'5", 110-lb. Cox also denies persistent tabloid rumors that she has an eating disorder. "I don't have any skeletons in my closet!" she says in mock outrage. Although she's a size 2, she claims to love junk food, and on a recent afternoon at the Friends sound-stage she surveyed the snack table—overflowing with doughnuts, cold cuts, cookies and chips—and tilted a package of raw chocolate-chip cookie dough to her mouth. "You've got to be kidding," groaned Aniston. But Cox wasn't done. "Chips or Cheetos?" Finally she took one of each and moved on.

Cox blames her frequent noshing on her hectic schedule and laughs at talk of bulimia. "I couldn't make myself throw up if I tried," she says. Her mother, Courteney Copeland, 61, a housewife in Cox's hometown of Birmingham, Ala., agrees: "She's thin, but she's healthy. Courteney's just little-boned."

And dedicated to exercise. Cox stays in shape by working out on a treadmill at the studio gym during shooting breaks, and each week takes three hour-long Pilates classes—a strengthening routine involving a movable, flat wooden platform attached to springs that create resistance.

Although she has a closetful of Calvin Klein outfits, Cox says she is happiest "puttering around the house" in jeans and a T-shirt. Her three-bedroom French country-style house in Santa Monica is her fourth home in seven years. As with the others, Cox chose to renovate the place—acting as prime contractor herself. Forget the white-on-white bedroom decor, cozy sofas and Impressionist-style landscapes. What Cox really wants to talk about is the hardwood desk she built or the way she rewired the lighting fixtures. "I took out these plain, ordinary lights and put in chandeliers," she says. "I thought that was pretty cool." With the makeover complete, Cox has put the house, which she bought for just over $1 million in 1992, on the market for $1.2 million.

Cox's renovating instincts don't stop at houses. She sees herself as a work in progress. Every morning she studies her face in a magnifying mirror. "I can still hear my brother Richard's voice," she says. "We'd be riding in his pickup, and he'd turn to me and say, 'Goddamn, Cece, what's that hair growing out of your chin?' You don't think I get up and check my nose hairs every morning?"

She's just as fussy with her friends. "Courteney gets involved with everything from how you dress to plucking your eyebrows," says Theresa Lowrey, 36, a Manhattan private secretary, who worked with Cox before she began her acting career. "Once she followed me into my dentist's office and told him how she thought my front teeth should be filed." Only courtesy keeps Cox from giving advice to strangers—like the woman Cox recently met who had a mustache on her upper lip. "If only I had felt comfortable enough to tell her how she could bleach it," Cox says, clearly frustrated. "God, I could have helped her in a second."

Still, some people welcome Cox's input. "The beauty of Courteney," says Aniston, "is that if you don't know what to do, she can tell you in three seconds." Water rings on your wooden table? "Put mayonnaise on it and let it sit overnight," Cox advises. Candle wax on your tablecloth? "Put some paper down and iron it. It comes right up." When Liam Neeson moved to L.A. from London to film 1990's Dark-man, Cox, who knew him through a mutual friend, located rental homes for him to look over, decorated the one he chose, even supplied meals for him to heat up in his kitchen when he came home from the set. "I found coming to L.A. so confusing, and she was like an anchor," says Neeson. "She made me feel blessed." Neeson is a certified hunk, but Cox says that wasn't on her mind. "He needed help, and I love to do that stuff," she says.

Cox has been a take-charge person ever since her childhood in Birmingham. The youngest of four kids, she was always close to her father, Richard, 65, a building contractor. But when she was 10, her parents divorced after 19 years of marriage. Cox, like her brother and two sisters, stayed with her mother, but became rebellious. "You have to blame someone for the divorce, and I thought my dad was the most fun person in the world," says Cox. "Looking back, I know those two didn't belong with each other forever." Today, Cox visits twice a year with her father, who remarried in 1975, and she describes her mother as "my best friend." But like many children of divorce, Cox reacted to the loss of stability by imposing an order of her own. Her mother recalls that when she started dating businessman Hunter Copeland, now 77, whom she married in 1976, Courteney, then 12, wanted to set down rules: "She said, 'He can come over at night, but y'all can't sleep in the same room.' "

As a teenager, Cox applied that same discipline in her own life. While attending Mountain Brook High, a public school in Birmingham, she worked afternoons at a pool-supply store and saved enough to buy herself a new blue Datsun 210 by the time she was 16. After graduating in 1982, Cox studied architecture at her mother's alma mater, Mt. Vernon College in Washington. But the summer after her freshman year, she worked as an office assistant for her stepfather's nephew Ian Copeland, a New York City music agent who handled pop acts including the Police and UB40. Despite a 15-year difference in their ages, the two became romantically involved. Cox describes herself in retrospect as a "short and pudgy girl" in a size-6 dress, but in 1983 she wanted to be a model. Copeland says he suggested she also try acting.

Cox did both. Signed by the Ford Modeling Agency, she did ads for Noxzema and Maybelline and had a couple of soap-opera walk-ons. Then, in 1984, Brian De Palma was casting a part for the video of Bruce Springsteen's single "Dancing in the Dark"—a girl the Boss would pull from the audience for a dance onstage. At the audition, competing with 300 others, Cox recalls, "I felt overwhelmed by all these beautiful girls." But when De Palma asked what acting credits she had, she knew what to say: "Just two days on As the World Turns. But you can change that."

De Palma did. The job paid just $350, but the video—and Cox—got noticed. That break, though, spelled the end of Cox's relationship with Copeland. "Her confidence caught up with her drive," says the agent, now 46. "After that, she was on her own."

Cox got work, but the going was bumpy. The 1985 NBC series Misfits of Science flopped after four months, and the 1987 films Down Twisted and Masters of the Universe sank quickly. But that year, Cox was cast on NBC's Family Ties as Michael J. Fox's girlfriend, Lauren. Looking back, Fox says he appreciated Cox's "positive attitude." What he probably means, as even Cox admits, is that she was pretty green. "Michael taught me a lot about timing," she says. "It was like going to sitcom school."

After Family Ties, Cox tried to concentrate on movies. But her only hit was the 1994 Jim Carrey film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, in which she was clearly a secondary presence. In any case, Cox says, she was by then more interested in Keaton than in her career. The two met in 1989, after Cox told a mutual friend how much she admired Keaton's work in the 1988 drama Clean and Sober. Their first date was at her house. "We talked for five hours," she says. "We talked about our dream homes—the great ones we'd seen and the kind we'd like to build ourselves." Soon, Cox says, the two discovered almost identical sensibilities. "We were sympathetic on so many levels," she says. "If something weird happened, we would turn to each other and just say, 'I know.' "

Cox can't say if the two will ever get back together ("With us, you can never tell"), but her mother hasn't given up. "They were always trying to work on themselves," she says. "They need to forget that and accept each other the way they are—and just get married."

It is 8:00 p.m., and Cox is home from her trip to New York. The director of Commandments praised her work, but Cox is downcast. She didn't have time, she says, given her Friends schedule, to focus on the film. She thinks her performance suffered. When Mac, her German shepherd mix, and Rags, her border collie, excitedly gang up on her, Cox tries to work up some enthusiasm. Then she heads upstairs to her office, where Sue, the assistant Cox hired the week before, has placed her mail, invitations and a new script for Friends. A short time later, her friend Jennifer Keohane drops by—and she has good news. "Honey, you're going to love your assistant," she tells Cox. "This afternoon she saw some footprints in the hall and immediately got out the vacuum cleaner."

For a moment, Cox's eyebrow arches with an unspoken question: Footprints? Then her face relaxes, and her mouth widens into a very large smile.

GREGORY CERIO
TODD GOLD in Santa Monica

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  • Todd Gold.