As a Laugh-Getter, Katey Sagal Is Cleaning Up in Tv's Dirtiest Show, Married...with Children

updated 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Just when you thought it was safe to watch TV again, along comes Married...With Children. The new morality? Wholesome family fare? This new Sunday night sitcom from Fox has never even heard of such catch-phrases. A bilious look at blue-collar domestic life, Married alms its barbs at a number of subjects—flatus and halitosis are typical—but mostly at sex, sex and more sex. This is a show, to take a representative example, where the husband shoves a long, cream-laden eclair into his wife's mouth and screams, "Eat it! Eat all of it! Eat every inch of it!"

The Cosby Show it ain't.

Everyone in the Bundy household thinks about sex, but it's Mom (Katey Sagal) who really has lust on the cerebellum. Peg divides her time pretty evenly between luring hubby Al to bed and putting him down for his shortcomings in and out of bed. One of the most vivid temptress-cum-castrators of all TV time, she's probably the only woman in America that Gloria Steinem and Phyllis Schlafly detest equally.

But Peg definitely has one supporter in the person of Sagal. "To me she's kind of glamorous," says the 31-year-old actress. "I see her as an ex-cocktail waitress who was once queen of the bowling alley." Even Peg's clothes—which combine the influences of K mart and Frederick's of Hollywood—make sense to Sagal. "You go anywhere in the Midwest or even the Valley, and you'll see that."

You won't see it in Sagal's Hollywood Hills home. In costume and personality, the earthy, funky Sagal is utterly unlike her character. But that is hardly a tribute to her thespian training. Barely schooled as an actress, Sagal has spent most of her career trying to make it as a blues-wailing rocker.

Genetically, however, she's more disposed to the camera than the concert stage. Her father, Boris Sagal, was a prominent TV director. Her mother, Sara, worked as an assistant director in early live television. Her sisters, twins Liz and Jean, 25, starred in their own brief 1984 series, NBC's Double Trouble. But aside from six months of drama studies at California Institute of the Arts, Katey is a pure natural. "She's a genius," says Mary Tyler Moore, who gave Sagal her only other regular TV role—hard-bitten reporter Jo Tucker on Moore's eponymous 1985 sitcom. "Katey is one of those rare people," continues Moore, "who needs to see, feel or touch something only a few times to know it entirely."

If pain is a requisite of art, Sagal is very well qualified. Six years ago, in one of Hollywood's most infamous pre-Twilight Zone accidents, her father was decapitated by a helicopter while directing the miniseries World War III. Seven years earlier her mother had died after suffering a serious heart condition for years. Katey, the oldest child, grew up taking care of her mother and assuming heavy emotional responsibilities. "I was one of those kids affected by everything," says Sagal. "I was very serious. I was grown up by the time I was 5."

By adolescence she'd become disillusioned with her life at home. Rebellious and insecure, she ran away from home for nine months at age 16 and dropped out of CalArts at 19 to become a musician. She joined a local band, the Group With No Name, cut a record and married the guitarist. The record went nowhere, and the marriage ended after three years. Sagal went on to play L.A. clubs and tour as a Bette Midler Harlette, but never did cut her own record deal.

Her life went into turnaround, so to speak, in 1985, when her agent persuaded her to audition for Moore's show, Mary. Although Sagal had only acted in a few musicals and more experienced candidates had already tested, Katey was allowed to read on a Monday. By Friday she had the job—and a new career. "My father always wanted me to act," she says, "but I always wanted to sing instead. Now I have this image of him up there laughing at me."

His laughter is justified, because his daughter might emerge as the first real star of the Fox Broadcasting network. Even if that doesn't come off, Katey is increasingly seeing her insecurity give way to confidence. For instance, since ending a two-year relationship with a saxophone player eight months ago, Sagal hasn't been desperate to find a replacement. "I'd always felt more comfortable in a relationship," she says, "but I don't feel that way anymore. I'm really okay by myself." She still has her bouts with self-doubt, but she'll live with them. "There's a big part of me that still nags that I'm not doing enough. But I'm able to enjoy my success, which is really great. And I think enjoying it is one thing I'm going to get better at."

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