NOT EVERY ACTRESS, IN THE FIRST episode of a new TV series, can topple her father's coffin, paint the word SLUT in huge letters on her sister's Porsche, try to steal the same sister's boyfriend (even if he is her ex-husband) and see such unappealingly rowdy behavior as a career opportunity. But for her role as Teddy Reed, the alcoholic, highly sexed stray sheep of NBC's Sisters, Sela Ward was happy to get down and dirty. "It's a great part for me," says Ward, 34, who feels she has been pigeonholed as a "refined, upper-class ice princess. That's the image I'm trying to get away from."

Ward first polished her head-turning veneer at the University of Alabama, where she was a Crimson Tide cheerleader and homecoming queen. Then she soap-scrubbed it to perfection as a rich kid on CBS's short-lived Emerald Point, N.A.S., as well as in supporting roles in movies and on TV. Her Nothing in Common costar Tom Hanks nails it: "She's a big-time megabeauty."

Now, with Teddy, she has found a role that goes beyond the eyes and has made her the standout among a sturdy cast. "She's the least concerned about her looks of any actor I've ever met," says coexecutive producer Anita Addison. Sisters, which NBC has just added to its Saturday fall lineup, generated its highest temperature in an opening steam-room discussion among the three other title characters (Swoosie Kurtz, Julianne Phillips—the former Mrs. Bruce Springsteen—and Patricia Kalember) about multiple orgasms, a colloquy cut before airing because of sponsor pressure. On the set, Sela (rhymes with Sheila) revels in a similar—if less explicit—camaraderie. "We really like each other," she says of her costars. "They are secure women who are comfortable with where they are in their careers."

The current comfort of Ward's own career came with little planning. "Acting was the farthest thing from my mind," she says of growing up in Meridian, Miss., the oldest of four children of electrical engineer Granberry Holland Ward, now 65, and Annie Kate, 61. She's close to her own siblings, Brock, 30, Berry, 32, and Jenna, 33. "I get along great with her," says Sela of her real sis. In college, Sela majored in art and advertising, graduating in 1977. Soon after, she headed to New York City to pursue the ad game but at a friend's suggestion began modeling. Though a tad short (5'7"), Ward signed with the Wilhelmina Agency and did some 20 national TV commercials.

She moved to L.A. in 1983 and within months was cast on Emerald Point. The series was canceled after only one season, but Ward enjoyed a three-year pairing with costar Richard Dean (MacGyver) Anderson. From 1985 to 1987, she appeared in four unexceptional films. "Doors opened for me easily at first," she says. "But once you decide to prove yourself as an actress, it gets tougher."

In 1987 Ward began a relationship with Peter (Robocop) Weller, which, she says, "put my career on the back burner." The couple broke their engagement last year. Ward breathes a sigh: "A relationship with another actor is not for me."

Off-camera, Ward draws and paints, producing colorful abstracts that adorn her two-bedroom condo in Century City. She's also developing a new variety of flavored bottled water and a fashion video series. "I look at my life like a novel," she says, "and this chapter is the most exciting to date." After all, she's just getting to the good parts.

TIM ALLIS
MICHAEL ALEXANDER in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Michael Alexander.