THE MOST MOMENTOUS CHANGE IN Kate Jackson's life began early one morning in January 1987, during her fourth season on the hit TV series Scarecrow and Mrs. King. After a phone call informed her that the show's taping was canceled because costar Bruce Boxleitner had the flu, Jackson went back to sleep. When she woke several hours later, "It was out of the blue, but perfectly clear," she recalls. "I sat up in bed and literally said, 'You have to have a mammogram.' "
She did, and two days later a biopsy confirmed her vague fears: A minute growth found in her left breast was determined to be malignant. "I was forced to face, squared up, my own mortality," says Jackson. "I had to decide whether I wanted to live or to die. And if you choose life, as I did, it's never the same."
For three TV seasons 16 years ago, she was famous as Sabrina Duncan, a girl-next-door gone glamorous and the character critics dubbed the brainiest of Charlie's three Angels. For a time after Kate Jackson's departure from the show in 1979, she seemed to be coping well with the aftermath of megafame. She scored another prime-time hit with Scarecrow, starred in the 1982 feature film Making Love and flopped in the sitcom Baby Boom. Two marriages came and went. But by the end of the '80s, Jackson, save for the occasional TV project, was deliberately keeping a very low profile.
What none of her fans knew about was her breast cancer. At first a lumpectomy and a series of radiation treatments seemed to have cured the disease. Then in 1989, when a recurrence was detected, Jackson underwent a partial mastectomy and six weeks of recuperation. Late last year, at the critical two-year postoperative mark, doctors again ran a battery of tests—and found no trace of the disease.
This spring a CBS movie called Black Death—the story of an epidemiologist tracking a potential outbreak of bubonic plague—served as a kind of comeback. "The phone rang. I got notes," she says. "It got me really excited about my career." Now healthy and newly married to Tom Hart, 41, the owner of a Utah ski-lodge business, Jackson, 43, is feeling especially blessed. "There is a calmness about Kale," says her close; friend and former fellow Angel Jaclyn Smith, "a mellowness and understanding of things that wasn't there before."
On that fateful morning in January 1987, Jackson had no external symptoms of the cancer that was beginning to grow inside her. She now suspects that her premonition was rooted in repeated warnings from her doctor about the importance of having a baseline mammogram, generally recommended when a woman reaches age 35. "I don't know why," she says. "Like a lot of women, I suppose, I had ignored it."
That afternoon, Jackson's first-ever mammogram detected a suspicious growth in her left breast. "It wasn't a lump," she says. "It wasn't even anything that I could feel. It was microscopic."
A biopsy showed the tissue to be malignant, and four days later, Jackson, admitted to a Los Angeles hospital under an assumed name, underwent a lumpectomy. A week later, aided by painkillers, she returned to work and then endured five weeks of grueling radiation treatments that she managed to keep secret from everyone but Scarecrow's producer. "I had to be my own pillar of strength," she says.
The following year Jackson was given a clean bill of health and went on to star in the poorly received NBC series Baby Boom, canceled after 13 weeks. That show, she says, represented "the most stress of my entire life"—at least until September 1989, when a periodic mammogram again revealed a cluster of cancer cells in her left breast. "Evidently, they'd missed a little bit before," says Jackson, who supported her doctors' decision to perform a partial mastectomy and reconstructive plastic surgery.
"The range of emotions you go through is amazing," she says. "But I really made a conscious decision to be positive. When I had a negative thought, I pushed it away."
To be with her friend, Jaclyn Smith canceled a trip to New York City. She met Jackson at her doctor's office before she checked into the hospital. "I'd been crying before I got there," says Smith. "Then I saw Kate, and she had a smile on her face. She sensed how I'd been doing and said, 'Hey, let's go do it.' We talked and said, 'We've gotten through some other things, like divorces, and we'll get through this.' And we did."
When Jackson awoke, groggy from surgery, "The first thing I heard was good news. My lymph nodes were clean, thank goodness. I fell incredibly fortunate." She was deluged with gifts and cards, and Smith arrived with a giant stuffed gorilla decked out in slippers, lipstick and false eyelashes. "At first I thought, 'Oh, God, my life is so serious,' " says Jackson. "But then I'd look at this monkey and have to laugh."
At home Jackson read medical journals, switched to a macrobiotic diet and came to terms with the results of her reconstructive surgery. "I'm never going to have the perfect body," she says. "I'm not into facelifts and lip poufs. But I can wear a strapless evening gown, a bustier, or whatever is required for a part."
She also came to the realization that it was time to leave Hollywood. At the end of 1988, after putting her $2.3 million Benedict Canyon estate up for sale, she bought and moved into a 19th-century farmhouse on 125 meadowed acres in Keswick, Va., near the home of her best high school friend. "I'd had it with Hollywood's long hours, the politics, the back stabbing and the gossip," she says. "It was not a great town for having your feet on the ground and living a normal life."
For Jackson, quiet normality was a novelty. The debutante daughter of Hogan Jackson, the president of a builder's supply company, and his wife, Ruth, Kate had grown up, the elder of two sisters, in a wealthy suburb of Birmingham, Ala. "She was high-spirited, unrestrained—and unruly," says Chita Middleton, her high school chum. "My mother called her 'the wild colt.' "
After moving to New York City to study acting at 20, Jackson landed her first professional job, as Daphne, a beautiful ghost, on the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows in 1970. In 1972 she began the first of her four seasons as nurse Jill Danko on the police drama The Rookies.
Then in September 1976 came the debut of Charlie's Angels, starring Jackson, Smith and a third actress, then known as Farrah Fawcett-Majors. Each week the show drew an astonishing 23 million viewer households—and some 18,000 pieces of fan mail. "I remember being blown away by all the attention," says Jackson. "Jackie, Farrah and I became great friends. We had each other to hold on to, and that was it."
Fawcett left the show after one season, and the next year, Jackson too was feeling frustrated. Balking at the show's sheer fluff, she soon earned a reputation as the series' most temperamental star. At the end of the show's third season, upset that scheduling conflicts prevented her from accepting the role opposite Dustin Hoffman in the film Kramer vs. Kramer—which went instead to Meryl Streep—Jackson, then 30, became increasingly contentious and was fired. "It was good when it was good," she says, ruminating on her days as an Angel. "And when it wasn't good, it was bad."
The same might have been said about her personal life. In 1978 Jackson eloped with actor Andrew Stevens, six years her junior, after a six-week romance. The union lasted only two years. At a poolside ceremony in 1982 she wed New York City businessman David Greenwald; that marriage also ended after two years. "Both times," she says, "I was looking for real commitment in all the wrong places."
Though gun-shy about a third marriage attempt, Jackson, while vacationing in Aspen in 1989, spotted an attractive man at a local restaurant and uncharacteristically sent him a note through a waitress. "It said, 'I'll be in town for a week. If you want, give me a call.' I had never sent a note to anybody before. It probably had to do with overcoming my health problems. You realize that if things are going to happen in life, it's up to you to get the ball rolling."
"I couldn't read her signature, but you've got to respect a woman who can do that," says Hart. "The waitress said that Kate was really nice, so I should call her." According to Hart, the two didn't really date. "We just got together." They grilled chicken, went to the movies, and during one of his early visits to her house he repaired her front stairs. Then last May, on a bridge over the creek that runs through Jackson's farm, Hart presented Jackson with a diamond ring. Four months later the couple wed at their leased Brentwood home, attended by friends and family—including Sean, Hart's 8-year-old son from a prior relationship, who served as a ring bearer. Kate's 4-year-old German shepherd, Bailey, was attired in a collar of pink flowers.
Jackson was straightforward in telling Hart about her cancer. "I told him that I had it, plain and simple," she says. "Either someone loves you—or it wasn't right. I was pretty sure that this was the right guy." These days the couple live quietly at their homes in Los Angeles and Park City, Utah. "I did all the premieres and the social whirl," she says. "Now I don't want to do it—nor do I feel the need to."
Still, last month the two attended one of their periodic get-togethers with the original Angels at Fawcett's Bel Air home. "Farrah and Ryan [O'Neal] did the french fries. Farrah made chicken. Jackie made the salad. And I did the vegetables," says Jackson. "It was great fun."
Jackson and Hart maintain close ties with Sean, who lives with his mother. "We're definitely thinking about having a baby," she says. "One of our own and adopting one. I asked my oncologist if I could have a baby, and he said yes, there was no reason why not."
"Children adore Kate," says Smith. "I've been urging her for years—adopt, whatever. Have 'em."
That prospect undoubtedly seems less daunting than it did during her illness. "Kate's got it pretty well under control," says Hart. "The cancer doesn't even enter mind. She's convinced me that it's behind us."
"Kate's a survivor," says her friend Smith. "What I really admire is that she hasn't become cynical." That observation seems borne out by Jackson herself, now intent on the future and absorbed with studying writing, directing and the possibility of a new television series.
"I have all the enthusiasm and interest that I did when I was starting out," she says, looking, for all her travails, not so very different from the Angel of old. "Twenty-some years after coming to Hollywood, I feel happy. Real happy. I feel like I'm 20 years old again."
TODD GOLD in Los Angeles