Dixie Carter first worked with actress Kathleen Quinlan, who plays her coworker in the new CBS drama Family Law, 20 years ago on a New York City stage. They starred in a play called Taken in Marriage, in which Quinlan was little sister to none other than Meryl Streep. It was Quinlan's first theater role, says Carter, "but she was on that stage crackin'. She held her own in the shark tank. She was a scrapper."

Her steely power only grew as Quinlan, now 45, matured into an actress whose movie performances, from 1977's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden through 1998's A Civil Action, consistently impressed critics and audiences. That strength comes through again on Family Law, in which Quinlan plays Lynn Holt, a divorced attorney and mother starting over with a new legal team (Carter, Chris McDonald and Julie Warner). It's one of the most watched new series of the season. "She is tough," says McDonald. "If I had to have a lawyer to represent me, I'd go with her."

But ask her about being a working mom and Quinlan, who has a son, Tyler, 9, seems vexed. "I'll never feel completely at peace," she sighs. "How do you mother your child in increments as opposed to being there for the full stretch every day?" She used to take Tyler (and a nanny and a tutor) on location for her films. "But now," she says, "he's got his own friends and sports."

Solution: her first full-time TV job, with a contract stipulation that most days end no later than 6 p.m. and never exceed 12 hours. That allows her to leave the studio in Culver City and head back to her three-bedroom Malibu home in time for supper with her husband, actor Bruce Abbott, 45, and Tyler (and sometimes Abbott's son Dalton, 10, from his first marriage). "Otherwise," she says, "why do it?" Paul Haggis, Law's co-creator and executive producer, was happy to make the concession. "Much of the character comes out of Kathleen," he says. "The strength, resilience and self-deprecating style."

Quinlan needed a little extra grit growing up in Mill Valley, Calif., the only child of Robert Quinlan, a TV sports director, and his wife, Josephine, who had the unusual job of overseeing the gun supply at the Presidio military base in San Francisco. Between the ages of 7 and 13, Quinlan suffered from allergy-induced asthma. "I remember going from bed to bathroom huffing and puffing, like I'd run a mile," she says.

Fortunately she outgrew the condition in adolescence, becoming a passionate outdoorswoman, but she hadn't thought seriously of acting until one day at Tamalpais High School in 1972, when director George Lucas came looking for teens to cast in American Graffiti. Quinlan landed a one-line role. Then came the 1976 cult hit Lifeguard, followed a year later by her role as a teenage mental patient in Rose Garden. Like her career, her love life was also heating up. In the early '80s she began a three-year romance with Al Pacino, whom she'd met while doing Taken in Marriage in Manhattan. They remain friendly, she says, but the relationship failed because "he was a city fish, I'm a country fish."

In the late '80s, shortly after her father's death from kidney failure, Quinlan married a West Coast painter, but the marriage ended after just six months. "I married kind of out of grief," she says. Then, on the set of a 1989 cable movie, Trapped, she met Abbott, married at the time to Terminator star Linda Hamilton. "I went, 'This is a mistake. He's supposed to be with me,' " Quinlan recalls. She waited things out, and by the time they met again the following year, Abbott was divorced. Tyler was born in 1990, and four years later the couple wed.

It was also in '94 that she had her most exhilarating experience as a film actress, playing astronaut Jim Lovell's wife, Marilyn, in Apollo 13. Lovell himself piloted her to Houston for a tour of NASA, says Quinlan, who won a Best Supporting Actress nomination. "It was like having [naturalist] John Muir take you walking through the redwoods."

With her series commitment, she'll be doing less flying—but just as much running, fishing and horseback riding. A shoulder injury has meant cutting back on her surfing, "and that took a lot of the juice out of her," Abbott jokes. But as long as she can go home at 6, says Quinlan, "I feel pretty dang lucky."

Tom Gliatto
Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles

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  • Tom Cunneff.