Picking through a lunchtime salad, the sultry blond remembers the way she was. "I was burned out," she says, and as she lights another cigarette, it's easy to believe her: She sounds like a woman twice her age and looks like a woman with half her experience. "In five years I had done 13 films, which I think broke Elvis's record. I was not in control of what was going on, and I just wanted to step back, tell everybody to take a chill pill and return when I was ready." She's ready now. At 24, an age when most people are still choosing a career, Diane Lane is choreographing a comeback.

As Lorena, the disillusioned prostitute in the eight-hour CBS miniseries Lonesome Dove, which airs this week, Lane has her most important role in nearly five years. Though her co-stars in the historical Western include such actors' actors as Robert Duvall and Anjelica Huston, she reports, "People told me I shouldn't do TV, that it was beneath moi." Diane had a different objection: After 10 years in the movie business, she felt she had already portrayed too many hookers. "At first, I thought, oh, God, it's another of those conniving, wily women that I've played a lot of." But Dove producer Dyson Lovell persevered. Says Lovell: "Diane has the ability to give you the hard edge the whores must have had then and also show an incredible innocent beauty." For Lane, that talent is instinctive. "The potential hot tomato of today can turn into the cold pop tart of tomorrow," she says, "and I know that."

Indeed she does. At 6, Lane was spouting Greek verse in a New York production of Medea. At 13, she forfeited a Broadway job in Runaways (as a prostitute) to film her debut, A Little Romance, with Laurence Olivier. And a year later TIME magazine put her on the cover, declaring her one of Hollywood's "whiz kids." Then, at 19, the megabuck flop of The Cotton Club wiped her out. "I'm not the new kid on the block anymore," says Lane, and she sounds relieved.

Her early success was just the visible part of a bizarre childhood. When Diane was 13 days old, her parents split up, and her mother, Colleen Farrington, a singer and former Playboy centerfold, retained custody of Diane until age 6. At that point, Lane's father, Burt, then a Manhattan drama coach-turned-cab driver, raised Diane after Farrington moved to Georgia. Diane lived with Burt, now 55, in a series of residential hotels and often spent her days riding in the front seat of his cab. "We were like Siamese twins," says Burt. "She was this angelic, perfect child."

So it seemed. After playing Medea's daughter in her first acting job, Lane acquired one role after another. Remembers Burt: "No career was ever planned for Diane. This was just better than daycare." Always a good student, Lane was soon getting an education from seasoned veterans like Olivier on movie sets. "Olivier told my dad that the entertainment industry is like a lifeboat," recalls Lane, who adored Olivier. "Only 10 people could fit in it or it would sink. Olivier saw himself as one of the 10, and when he saw another hand rise out of the ocean to try and get in, he'd just cut it off." When A Little Romance was released, critics rhapsodized about Diane's performance as a love-struck youngster.

If it ever does, prosperity did not in her case bring maturity. At 15, Lane declared her independence from her father. She ran away to L.A. for a week with her pal Christopher (Blue Lagoon) Atkins. "We were just puppies," she says. "It was reckless behavior that comes from having too much independence too young." Recalls Burt: "She had the life experience of people three times her age, and she wanted that acknowledged." When she came back to New York, she shunned her father, who had become her manager, and moved in with a friend's family, to whom she paid rent. "When Diane made her exits, she made them for real," says her dad. "She had her own money and followed her own schedules. All kids rebel in some way, but Diane was capable of carrying out her plans. And she did."

Lane next decided to do something that for her was unconventional. In 1981 she enrolled in high school after having taking correspondence courses. But her mother, whom she visited often, suddenly wanted to assert her control over Diane. En route to school one day, she ran into her mother. Farrington told her daughter that an old friend was awaiting her in a car down the street. "I thought it was my 14-year-old cat, Poopsie," says Diane. "But when I got into the car, there was a man and no handles on the door." No Poopsie. Farrington drove Lane to her home outside Augusta, Ga. "All she wanted to do was talk to me, but I was too busy freaking out because she was driving me to Georgia against my will," recalls Diane. Lane and her father successfully challenged her mother in court. Six weeks later Lane was back in New York. "It was ugly," she now says, though without rancor. "We didn't speak for three years after that." The pair has since reconciled.

The following year Lane met Francis Coppola, who would become a powerful force in her career. In 1983 she starred in two Coppola movies: Rumble Fish, with Matt Dillon, and The Outsiders, with Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Patrick Swayze. At the time, Lane was a bigger name than any of them. She got her high school ring in the mail on the set of Streets of Fire in 1984. Then came Coppola's Cotton Club, in which Lane played a sexy moll opposite Richard Gere. "Before The Cotton Club" recalls Burt, "Diane was probably the most sought after young actress around." After the film flopped, she became confused. "I was in a situation like when you get married or pregnant," she says. "Everyone has advice for you."

Her Cotton Club disaster persuaded Lane to drop out of the movie business—but led her into a romance. Diane had previously dated Timothy Hutton, and she had withstood rumors of a romance with Coppola ("That was farcical," she says now. "I can't even imagine it"). In Paris to promote The Cotton Club, she met French actor Christopher Lambert, the smoldering Tarzan of 1984's Greystoke. For French television, the two recreated a dance scene from Cotton Club, with Lambert subbing for Gere. "It wasn't love and it wasn't lust, but it was sure something," says Lane, who was seeing someone else at the time. After a brief affair with Lambert, "I just pulled away," she says.

Two years later they met again in Rome to film a still unreleased, still untitled love story. "It took him two weeks to convince me I should be his girlfriend again," says Lane. Then their love scenes took on a new dimension. "When you're doing a love scene with your lover, you think you never did it well enough because you know how good it really is between the two of you," says Diane. "You always think you cheated the audience."

She didn't cheat herself. Last October Lane and Lambert, 31, were married in a minimalist ceremony in Santa Fe. "It was just us and a witness," says Lane. Her father approves: "He's the best of all the guys she's dated." Diane is well aware of the passion her husband induces in other women. "Every female journalist who has interviewed me lets me know how desirable he is. Grow up, people! He has his days when he looks like Woodstock, and I have my days when I look like Lucy on acid."

Because of their different filming schedules, they divide their time between his two-bedroom West Hollywood apartment, complete with fax machine and piano, her house next to her mother's in Georgia and the two-bedroom home Lane bought in Santa Fe. Children are not part of the script so far. "I'm so completely in love with Christopher at this point, I don't want any distractions," Diane says. Besides, there's that comeback to consider. "It's all such a scramble for a moment's glory," says the actress. "There's the Andy Warhol quote about getting your 15 minutes. I got mine. But I think if I hang on longer, maybe I'll get another 15."

—Margot Dougherty, and David Hutchings in New York