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Talk about dramatic entrances. When newly svelte Yvette Freeman walked into ER's ninth season kickoff party last July, "I saw people's eyes pop open wide," says the actress, who plays nurse Haleh Adams. Her producers congratulated her and then said she was fired. But only from the first episode, which was set a mere 15 minutes after last season's finale and couldn't include such a dramatic weight loss. Freeman didn't mind. "How many people in Hollywood," she says, laughing, "get written out of something because they're too small?"

She was back by episode 2 last week, and viewers will indeed be seeing a lot less of her. After hitting 257 lbs. last November, the 5'5" Freeman enrolled in UCLA's Risk Factor Obesity Program; she now weighs a stunning 140. "I didn't recognize her," says Alex Kingston, who plays Dr. Elizabeth Corday. "I've never seen that sort of weight loss before. It's a huge feat."

And a necessary one for Freeman, 45, whose doctor warned her last year that her bulk put her at risk for type 2 diabetes. There were other warnings. Last September, while dining with husband Lanny Hartley, 64, a jazz pianist, she was slathering butter on her French bread. "He took it from me and said, 'That's too much,'" she says. "I got angry." Yet she refused to listen, even though she was far from happy with her looks. "They would get so many butt shots on ER," she says. "I can look at the reruns and see myself gaining weight." Finally, after two close friends, both overweight, died last year, one from diabetes complications and the other from heart problems, "I started looking at my life," Freeman says.

She ruled out diets that she had already tried unsuccessfully, including the Zone, Atkins and Weight Watchers. Gastric bypass surgery was not an option because "the thought of cutting into my body scared the crap out of me," she says. Two days after Thanksgiving, Freeman finally settled on the UCLA program. Under the supervision of doctors, nutritionists and psychologists, she switched to a diet of 100-calorie shakes, made with vitamin-enriched powder, downing up to seven per day. "The first week or two, you're holding on by your fingernails," says Freeman, who also attends weekly "AA-like" support groups with fellow dieters. "You don't have to do it as strict as I did, but once I made up my mind, I said, 'I'm going to go for it.'"

Indeed, Freeman displayed "a very positive attitude," says Dr. Jean Hardesty Radecki, a clinical psychologist who works with Freeman on the program, which she estimates has an 80 percent success rate. "The most successful people come in and say, 'You guys are the experts.' Yvette did that. She's an inspiration."

As the weight came off, Freeman added six-day-a-week workouts with personal trainer Monica Kazarian, who runs her through light weight training and kickboxing. On July 4 she had her first regular meal in months, enjoying grilled fish, vegetables and a salad. After slowly increasing her solid food intake since then, she is now down to one shake a day and adheres to a daily 1,400-calorie limit.

She is enjoying the perks that come with being size 8 instead of size 24. "Cute bras and underwear," says Freeman, who was a size 16 when she began ER. "You don't get that when you're a large woman." Even as an overweight child growing up in Wilmington, Del., one of seven children of Ruth, a housewife, and Charles, a pianist, both now deceased, Freeman dressed in frumpy sweaters because dresses were not plentiful in her size.

Her weight, however, never kept her from getting work. She landed in regional productions of Ain't Misbehavin' and The Wiz before moving to L.A. in 1991 and starting ER three years later. She met husband Hartley that same year, when he was the musical director for Dinah Was, her L.A. one-woman show about singer Dinah Washington.

"She's sexy to me either way," says Hartley of his wife, whom he wed in 1997. "She feels sexier now, so I'm happy for her, but she's still the same woman I married and love." Freeman doesn't quite agree. "I'm still not sure who I am," she says. "You have to adjust to this new weight and attention." And stay focused on keeping the pounds off. "This is a lifetime problem," she says. "I know I've got a long road ahead, but I feel wonderful."

Jason Lynch
Monica Rizzo in Los Angeles

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  • Monica Rizzo.