I WAS A VIRGIN AT THE PLAYBOY MANSION," giggles Victoria Jackson, thinking back to 1980, when she and actor Johnny Crawford would drop in at Hef's L.A. digs for brunch. Things were a "little romantic" between herself and the childhood star of TV's The Rifleman, she says, but there was a hitch: "He didn't believe in marriage, and I didn't believe in sex before marriage."

Jackson, 33, has always been something of a surreal fish out of water. A fundamentalist Christian, she spent six seasons (1986-92) as part of the censor-baiting cast of Saturday Night Live. And though she grew up thinking she might marry a preacher, in 1984 she wed Nisan Eventoff, who, far from being full of fire and brimstone, made his living as a professional fire-eater.

These days the woman who was SNL's in-house ditz finds herself in an even more surprising place—Miami. Divorced from Eventoff, with primary custody of their 6-year-old daughter, Scarlet, Jackson is a stay-at-home wife married to her former high school sweetheart, Paul Wessel, a member of the Metro-Dade police department's SWAT team. Her saving depleted by the divorce, she is trying to make ends meet on a cop's salary. "Paul says he'll take care of me and Scarlet for the rest of our lives," she says softly. "No one's ever said that to me. It's a very nice feeling."

As homemakers go, Jackson is more Peg Bundy than Donna Reed. One recent evening she sent Wessel, her husband of two months, off to work with a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, its toasted bread her only defense against his leasing assertion that "she doesn't cook at all." Other than that, though, he's all coos. "She is the most loving person I've ever met," says Wessel. "And she's a very devout, born-again Christian, which I love." Sitting beside him on a while leather couch in their modest three-bedroom town house, Jackson can only ask, "Isn't he adorable?" as she nuzzles his ear.

Last May, Jackson saluted Wessel by doing a handstand on SNL's Weekend Update news desk with I LOVE A COP painted on her stockings. A month later, announcing that she "had done all [she] could" on the show, Victoria made her final appearance. Says Update anchor Kevin Nealon: "She wasn't a slave to showbiz. It was very courageous of her to step out and follow her dream." Still, watching a recent show, Jackson cried. ("It was like all my friends are having a party," she explains, "and I'm not there.") And though her telephone answering machine in Miami plays "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries," she eventual wants to move to L.A. to pursue sitcom roles. "She feels out of show business here, and that's very hard for me to deal with," Wessel admits. "I don't think a man should follow his actress wife around and live off her."

If Jackson seems to be straddling two worlds, it's a stance she inherited from her father, a vaudeville actor turned gymnastics coach and strict Baptist deacon. "I grew up totally sheltered," she says, "but very good at doing handstands." At Dade Christian high school, where she was Homecoming Queen, she started dating Wessel, who played on the football team. By 1978 they were attending Furman University in South Carolina and engaged. But their romance sputtered when Wessel's surgeon dad prohibited the two from marrying until graduation, and Jackson's ambitions turned to acting. "Paul thought theater people were crazy," she says. "Most were. But I wanted to act."

That desire led her to an L.A. club, where she performed routines that combined aerobatics with battiness. She was the first, she says proudly, to sing while walking the balance beam: "That was how I stood out from the other nasal blondes." Among those taking notice were Nisan Eventoff, the club's fire-swallowing magician and, one fateful night, a visiting Johnny Carson scout. Victoria wound up marrying Eventoff and making 20 Tonight Show appearances. But as her career soared, Eventoff's stagnated, a situation that strained their marriage. A clause in Jackson's divorce deal prohibits her from talking publicly about the split, though she does say, with an incongruous giggle, "I made a lot of money in my career, but I don't have it. I'm not allowed to talk about who does.

Two years ago on a trip home, Victoria learned that Paul Wessel's father had died of leukemia; she called to offer her condolences. "My marriage is hell," she told him. Wessel said that he and his wife of nine years, an accountant, were also having problems. By March 1991, Wessel was separated, and the two met for the first time in a decade at Jackson's Miami hotel. "We just stared at each other and smiled and hugged," Jackson says. Two months later she filed for divorce and this June moved with Scarlet to Miami. On Sept. 4, Jackson and Wessel were married, and Scarlet's warming to her new stepdad, though she sometimes asks her mom, "Who do you love better?" Says Jackson: "I tell her, 'I love you better,' but I take care of you, so I need someone to take care of me.

At moments, Jackson still seems caught up in an SNL sketch. "Put on your little costume, you're going to be late," she advises her husband with high-pitched protectiveness as he dons his artillery belt, then heads for his patrol car. Before he can leave, though, Jackson kisses his cheek, pats his rear and asks for the 15th time in the last few hours: "Isn't he cute? Isn't he just the sweetest?"

SHELLEY LEVITT
MEG GRANT in Miami

  • Contributors:
  • Meg Grant.