LONG BEFORE SHE SIGNED ON TO STAR in ABC's saucy, controversial new series Good & Evil, comedienne Teri Garr put the word out to agents, writers and producers that she was interested in finding a sitcom. Garr's three best-known films, Close Encounters, Tootsie and Mr. Mom, grossed half a billion dollars. But since the mid-'80s, despite her reputation as one of the hardest-working—and best-liked—actresses in Hollywood, her eight films (including Firstborn, Miracles and After Hours) have all been rather lackluster.

Garr, who starred in CBS's 1986 soapy send-up, Fresno, saw the small screen as a larger canvas for her keen and durable comic gifts. Indeed, Washington Post critic Tom Shales, reviewing her 1986 TV movie Intimate Strangers, gushed that Garr was an "infinitely rechargeable source of incandescence."

Yet none of the projects recently submitted to Garrr lit up her feverishly active comic spirit. And she wasn't about to go the ditz-and-ass route. "They go, 'Okay, true story, a woman on welfare with five kids,' or 'True story, a woman lawyer who lives in downtown L.A.,' " says Garr, vamping on the pitch ritual. "I heard 'em all: people who live in trailers, circus people, marriage counselors who are married but maybe not really. Then I had this big deal at Disney, with writers, agents and lawyers going, 'Sign here, sign here,' but there was no script. I said, 'What's the idea?' And they said, 'Well, it will just lie you. It will be what you do—you know how funny things happen to you when you go to the store.' And I went, 'That scares me. I'm not making a deal on this.' "

The comedy dons at Disney were clearly on to something. But it's not that funny things happen to Garr: Wherever she is, it's Garr that happens to mundane, fleeting moments, transforming them with humor. Good & Evil, in which Garr plays wicked sister Denise Sandler, who battles good sister Genny (Margaret Whitton) for control of the family's cosmetics firm, is struggling for its prime-time survival. But the real-life Teri Garr variety show—a tireless, amazingly quick-witted one-woman showcase of absurd survivalist humor—is not a time slot but a way of life. As close friend Connie Frieberg, a talent manager, says: "Teri gives off this very spirited energy, grace and humor. She's very young in her ability to stay open, react freshly to things. We were once in this market and Teri found the only funny thing in the place. She made me read a label and I laughed. It's a very specific, a God-given sort of genius."

On a Wednesday night Garr is inching her new, shiny black BMW 750 along Sunset Strip to Orso, a favorite pasta palace. Sitting in traffic, her face is a kaleidoscope of comedic takes—lip-biting scowls, cynical smirks, self-mocking clueless frowns, mean corner-of-the-eye squints, goofy shrugs, sneers and leers. "Driving," she says, "is one of my specialities. Maybe I'm just going to flip out, have no values, start buying cars."

The next day on the G&E set, a visitor referring to notations on Garr's script asks, "What about these markers?" Garr whirls around. "My knockers?!" she asks, mock-defensive. "They're mine. Why? Do they look fake?" As costar Lane Davies says: "There's nothing of the prima donna there."

Garr is also secure and honest enough to admit she turned down a chance to play against type, replacing Kathleen Turner in the Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last summer. Partly it was because she would have been "second fiddle" to Turner, but she also declined because, she says, "I had a boyfriend in L.A. and, well, I really wanted a man." Unfortunately, she adds, he turned out to be a "horrible big-mistake guy."

So after a string of lower-budget films, she is ready for a television show. "I do certain kinds of films," she says. "I go away for eight weeks to Tacoma or somewhere, and they spend 3 million, and the movies die even if they're good. Sixteen people come to see me. I'm exaggerating, of course, but careers go in waves. I'm sure I'll do more movies. But right now I'm in this. I'd love to make a big, fat damn good living so I don't have to sweat it. But I have always had a weird attitude about my career. When I started out as a dancer, it was good enough for me just to be maybe in the front a little bit. So I'm not frustrated. I love this work. I never thought I'd get this far. I'm so amazed that I'm this far."

Susan Harris and husband Paul Witt, the sitcom supercouple (Soap, Golden Girls, Empty Nest), aggressively pursued Garr for G&E. "Her readings are never head-on," says Witt, "you never hear a line exactly as you expected it." They also expected Teri to play the good sister, Genny. But Garr immediately saw a career opportunity—and demanded she play evil Denise instead. "That was the obvious choice," she says. "The evil one is smarter and cutting. It's really out there, very weird, irreverent. It's a chancy show."

Garr was born into comedy. Her father, Edward, was a vaudevillian and her mother, Phyllis, an original Rockette. Teri grew up, with older brothers Ed and Phillip, in New Jersey. "I always heard stories about New York life," says Garr. "To me this was Utopia, this was fabulous."

When Terri was 11, her father died. Phyllis moved back to the San Fernando Valley and gamely supported her kids as a Hollywood wardrobe mistress. She never remarried and, says Teri, was a strong model of independence and resilience. "She lived her life through us and worked her fingers to the bone to give us what we wanted," says Garr. "But she'd say if we ever needed piano and dance lessons, we had to rake leaves, work, get a scholarship. That made us want stuff even more."

Garr wanted a dance career and showed promise in after-school classes. By the time she got to North Hollywood High she had already toured with a San Francisco ballet company. She studied speech and drama at Cal State-Northridge, then frugged and shimmied on Shindig and in a bunch of Elvis musicals. Her early TV credits included a Star Trek episode and a long stint on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in the early '70s. "Cher always said I could never find my look," says Garr. "Here's a woman who didn't want to rehearse because she was shopping on her lunch hour and buying everything in every color—and she's telling me I don't know my look?"

Ad agencies knew her look and used it in TV spots for Crest, Joy, Folger's coffee, Tide and Cheer. By 1974 Garr graduated to film work and showed an impressive range in earl) roles: The Conversation, Young Frankenstein and Close Encounters. But it was her Oscar-nominated performance as Dustin Hoffman's girlfriend in Tootsie, in 1982, that confirmed her as one of film's finest comediennes.

Says Garr: "That was a lucky fluke, I guess. I also say I was good, too. I had just finished One from the Heart when Tootsie came up and of course I was like, 'Please, darling, I just starred in a movie for Coppola,' which is the greatest thing in the world. Who knew it was going right into the dumper? That was my lesson in humble pie. Then Tootsie becomes this incredibly popular movie. I was in dreamland."

With the sitcom this year and a new man in her life—California contractor John O'Neill—Garr seems closer to getting back there than she has in a while. She admits, candidly and with more than a little poignancy, that her love life has taken a toll over the years. "I've had my heart broken," she says. "I've been involved in some really sick relationships—when someone is being abusive, lying, cheating—that were not good for me and, like everybody else, I cling to them."

A recent painful breakup left her wounded and wary. "Yeah, terrified," she says, "It's not easy for me to open myself up to people. It will be like that for a while. Honey, I've been nuked. But I learned. I think I'm less desperate in my relationships now. I want a companion, someone who is smart, funny, can talk and who is honest."

She reluctantly allowed herself to be fixed up with O'Neill, 40, whom she found to be a "sweet teddy bear with a heart." He lives in canyon country near Valencia, Calif., where he and Garr fly in his single-engine plane on weekends.

Garr keeps her creative head together by gardening, collecting art, racing through crosswords, reading papers, magazines, biographies and novels such as Anne Tyler's St. Maybe. Her daily workouts at a Hollywood gym keep her Fruit of the Loom fit for the underwear print ads.

Friend Frieberg says Garr, once harder on herself, has grown "more metaphysical" and positive recently. "One reason people like her so much and like working with her is that it's not this nightmare end-of-the-world thing," says Frieberg. "She's not defined by the success or lack of success." She says Garr is always there when her friends are sick or down. "She'll bring you the aspirin, the OJ, the chicken soup. She very much knows what's going on in her friends' lives—which is why they adore her."

Happiness manifests itself to Garr at mysterious moments that she is better at seizing these days. "Maybe it's a chemical thing," she says at lunch, between mouthfuls of pasta primavera. "Like when I'm working now, and I go to the gym, and then I have lunch at this place on Larchmont, and I'm sitting there, and I'm eating a tuna sandwich and reading a book, and I look up and I go, 'You know, I'm pretty happy. I got a nice car. Nice job. Tuna sandwich. This is all right.' And right now I feel that way too. This is great spaghetti. Life is okay. I guess I could get a dog. But I don't think it gets any better than this."