08/14/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
AS A CHILD GROWING UP IN AVON, Conn., Jessica Lundy thought about being a doctor like her father, Joel, a surgical oncologist. But her mother, Jean, knew better. "When Jessica was in the third grade, we got this letter from her school," recalls Jean. "It said, 'Your daughter is rapidly becoming the actress of the year here.' " It was the same at home. Lundy remembers how she would entertain her grandmother: "There was a routine called 'Jacqueline and Jessica.' I'd come in the room through one door and say politely, 'Hi, I'm Jessica, your granddaughter.' Then I'd leave and come in through the other door with a doily on my head and say in a little French accent, 'Hello, my name is Jacqueline.' " As a grown-up, she has to play only half of a duo. On Hope & Gloria, Lundy, 29, is the second name, a down-to-earth Pittsburgh hairdresser who befriends her neighbor Hope (Cynthia Stevenson), a cockeyed optimist—sap, Gloria might say—who helps produce a talk show. In its first season the show has consistently made the Top 20. Critics have compared Hope and Gloria to such classic female TV buddies as Kate and Allie, and Mary and Rhoda.
Unlike flashy Gloria, Lundy favors shorts and T-shirts. "She doesn't go out in that bimbo, look-at-me outfit," says her friend Leslie Dixon, a screenwriter. Back in Avon, where she grew up the older of two daughters—her sister Judy, 23, just graduated from college—Lundy was a tomboy, excelling at basketball and other sports. "I'd heard that saying, 'You run like a girl and throw like a girl,' " she says. "I made up my mind I wouldn't do that."
A drama major at New York University, Lundy moved to L.A. in 1990. During four years she was in as many failed series. The death of the first, Over My Dead Body, hurt the most. When star Edward Woodward broke the news to her, "I cried so hard, every bit of makeup was flowing down my face," she says. "Now I demand that people give me bad news only before I put my mascara on." She did sneak in some small but effective roles, such as the Date with the Annoying Laugh on Seinfeld.
When Lundy tried out for Gloria last fall, "we knew right away we'd found somebody with a great sense of humor," says Cheri Steinkellner, series co-executive producer and cocreator (along with her husband, Bill). "She came in with this see-through black top and black bra underneath. She liked the fact that she'd gone into a 7-Eleven and the guy behind the counter gave her a free Slurpee because of her outfit."
Lundy would gladly throw in a second straw for her costar, Stevenson. "We get along frighteningly well," says Lundy, who lives alone in a sparsely furnished, one-bedroom apartment in L.A. She has never been married and isn't seeing anyone steadily. This summer, Lundy is in Toronto playing Tom Arnold's wife in a movie comedy called The Stupids. Then it's back to the second season of Hope & Gloria. All good portents, but she is waiting for the ultimate sign of success: "I'll know I've finally made it when the tabloids say Cynthia and I are feuding, and I scratched her eyes out."
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles