JESSICA HECHT KNOWS ALL ABOUT multiple personalities. Not only are her mother, stepfather, sister and stepsister all shrinks, but the actress plays two radically different roles on Friends and The Single Guy, back-to-back shows on NBC's Thursday night sitcom slam dunk. "Sometimes, it takes a minute to figure out who I am," says Hecht, 31. "I get a little schizo."

It's a good kind of schizo, though. On Friends, Hecht dispenses sharp one-liners as Susan—the caustic, newly-wedded lesbian partner of Carol (Jane Sibbett), the ex-wife of Ross (David Schwimmer). Then, on Single Guy, the rookie show NBC blessed with the plum post-Friends time slot, she exudes empathy as Janeane, a warmhearted, heterosexual newlywed. "The contrast is just amazing," says Single Guy costar Jonathan Silverman. "She goes from this tough antagonist on Friends to a loving, nurturing den mother on our show."

Keeping the two characters separate isn't always easy. During one recent week, Hecht raced in her '93 Honda Accord between the two shows, but found herself on the Friends set still in Janeane mode. "I was acting way too nice to Ross," she explains. Her lapse was understandable. She spends far more time as Janeane than Susan because her Friends role is an occasional one—she's committed to do six shows this season—while she's a regular on Single Guy. "With Friends' success, I've just been an observer, because my character's a bit of an outsider," she says. "With Single Guy, though, this is my new family."

Not that she needed one. Hecht, who grew up in Bloomfield, Conn., remains close to her mother, Lenore, 55, a psychotherapist, sister Elizabeth, 32, a psychiatrist, and father, Richard, 64, a physicist. Hecht's parents split when she was 12, and Lenore went on to wed Howard Iger, now 60, a psychiatrist with two children of his own: Russell, 23, an English teacher, and Andrea, 25, a social worker. "It's the family business," says Hecht, "but I knew I could never be in a room for hours without being able to express myself."

A brief adolescent rebellion (she admits to wearing "inappropriate amounts of makeup, hanging out with greasers," and, at 14, being a passenger in the car when a pal bashed the local mayor's mailbox) ended when Hecht enrolled in a summer drama program in Connecticut. "I came back wanting to be in Fame," she says. Instead, she settled for a lead role in her high school production of Damn Yankees, then majored in theater at New York University, graduating in 1987.

After college, she acted Off-Broadway and worked as a personal trainer at a posh Manhattan gym, toning up celebrity clients such as Ellen Barkin and Isabella Rossellini. In 1993, she moved to Los Angeles and played nanny to Cheers star George Wendt's three children. "She's incredible with kids, and with everyone else," says Wendt. "She's like Gandhi." The biggest perk to the nanny job? Wendt helped her get a tiny role in the pilot for last year's The George Wendt Show. Guest shots on Seinfeld and other series followed—and then steady gigs on Friends, and now Single Guy.

When not shuttling between the two shows, Hecht can be found cooking vegetarian specialties for her husband of seven months, director Adam Bernstein (Nickelodeon's The Adventures of Pete & Pete), in their airy, one-bedroom apartment in L.A.'s Los Feliz section. The two met in 1993 when a friend brought Bernstein to see Hecht shaking it as a stripper in an L.A. play. "My friend told me Adam really liked me," she says. "I was like, 'Well sure! I'm in pasties and a G-string.' "

Although he admits his wife is "easy on the eyes," Bernstein, 35, says it was her other virtues—"She's incredibly smart, funny, sensitive and affectionate"—that won him. "With her," he says, "I'm a happier guy. She leaves very little room for angst." And if that ever changes, she knows some good therapists.

DOUG HATT
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • John Griffiths.