CALL IT THE AFTERSHOCK OF RECOGNITION. AS THE predawn tremors of last year's California earthquake shook Gail O'Grady's three-level hillside San Fernando Valley home, the bleary-eyed actress rushed outside. "I had a pair of electric-blue, leopard-print slippers on and a long leopard-print coat," she recalls. "My hair was pulled back with this sparkling headband. A neighbor came out of a house, stared at me and said, 'Hey, you're on NYPD Blue, right?' "

Er...right. But O'Grady, 32, was stunned that her neighbor was instantly able to ID her as NYPD's Donna Abandando. Must have been that leopard-print outfit. True, Donna, the 112th precinct's blonde, curvy, doe-eyed secretary, lights up the drab, gray squad room and has made sparks fly as the mercurial love interest of shy, stammering Det. Greg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp). Most intriguingly, she has punctured the stereotype of the overendowed bimbo by amply displaying her brains and wholesomeness. Nevertheless, as another NYPD fan recently remarked to O'Grady, "On the show, you have a horrible [fashion] style!" O'Grady takes that as a compliment since she virtually created the Abandando look—from her retro-'60s hairdo and false eyelashes to her tight angora sweaters and bright stirrup pants—the day she auditioned for the role in mid-1993. "I know this woman," says O'Grady (who was inspired by the characters in Working Girl). "She's very physical. And I knew nobody else would show up like that."

In fact, few of the 100-odd other actresses trying out as Donna even managed to sound as authentic. The heavy Noo Yawk accent that O'Grady gives her character contrasts startlingly with her own soft midwestern twang, a product of her childhood in suburban Wheaton, Ill.—John Belushi-Bob Woodward country—where she was raised with her brother Michael, now 34 and an investment banker. The daughter of Jim O'Grady, a financial planner, and his wife, Jan, she has been a natural mimic since childhood. "I'd hear people's voices and get their accent and inflection down," she says. "I used to get in trouble for it too."

On the NYPD Blue set in L.A., she's still a troublemaker. She and fellow Chicagoan Dennis Franz (Det. Andy Sipowicz) like to do "silly things," says Franz, "like Scotch-tape people's hands behind their backs." But she also has a serious side. "When things bother her, she shows it," says Franz. "I'll ask her, 'What's wrong?' and she'll say, 'There you go again, figuring me out.' "

What was bothering O'Grady recently were tabloid reports about how her former boyfriend Robert Claypool has been stalking her ever since the two broke up last December and he moved out of her home. On Feb. 2, O'Grady sought a restraining order against Claypool in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging that he had verbally abused her "on numerous occasions." But no order was ever issued. Claypool could not be reached for comment, and all O'Grady will say now about their relationship is, "It's something that ended last year, and that's where I'd like to keep it."

Sadly, it's not the first romance to go sour for the twice-divorced O'Grady. She had just graduated from Wheaton North High School in 1981 when she wed her high school sweetheart. She prefers not to name him but says wistfully, "He was the best guy. We were just too young. Maybe if we had waited, it would have worked." They split after only a few years.

By then, O'Grady was working steadily as a commercial model in Chicago. At Wheaton North, she had tried out—unsuccessfully—for a couple of plays. But in 1986, buoyed by a bit role in Three Amigos (later cut from the film), O'Grady moved to L.A. Although she specialized in playing shady ladies in series like Matlock and In the Heat of the Night, her most memorable role was as the comely neighbor who sends Michael J. Fox on a madcap quest for Diet Pepsi in a 1987 TV spot. At 27, O'Grady recast herself as a bride. But her second marriage, to businessman Severin Wunderman, lasted only four months. Neither O'Grady nor Wunderman will say why they split. But looking back, she says, "I would choose men for the wrong reasons. This business chips away at you, and you never get used to rejection. So if somebody tells you everything you want to hear, you want to believe it."

Landing her NYPD role helped restore O'Grady's self-confidence—especially after what was supposed to be a three-episode stint expanded into a weekly gig that earned her an Emmy nomination last year. "She's a very smart woman, easy to get along with," says executive producer Mark Tinker. 'She's easy on the eyes and easy on the soul." Heck, O'Grady didn't even utter a peep when asked to go topless in a love scene with Clapp last season. "Everything was done tastefully," says her mother, "although I think I dealt with it much better than her dad did. He didn't say much."

So pleased are O'Grady's NYPD bosses that they even sent Donna on vacation for three episodes so the actress would have time to film Tailhook, an ABC movie airing next month, in which she portrays Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin, the Tailhook scandal whistleblower.

O'Grady, meanwhile, may have finally hooked Mr. Right: her manager Steven Fenton, 24. "All I ever wanted was to be in love with someone," she muses. "I've been thinking about this a lot lately. My 20s really stunk. Today I definitely can have a better relationship. I've decided I'm not going to feel bad anymore."

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Craig Tomashoff.