Rookie of the Year

updated 12/18/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/18/1995 01:00AM

ON VALENTINE'S DAY 1984, 14 MILLION All My Children fans watched rapturously as virginal Jenny Gardner married soulmate Greg Nelson. Finally, after four long, chaste years on the show, 21-year-old actress Kim Delaney had her first steamy sex scene—her wedding night.

What a difference a decade makes. Last May, when Delaney joined ABC's NYPD Blue for a four-episode stint, the actress was onscreen for under an hour before her character, Diane Russell, a detective struggling with alcoholism, slipped into the sack with jimmy Smits's Det. Bobby Simone. The scene made All My Children look like a Disney special. "I thought we should keep it discreet," says Delaney, now 31, "and Jimmy agreed." But the show's, producers had a different idea: "Cut to Jimmy and me completely naked in bed," she Says with a laugh. "So much for what we thought!"

Delaney, now a regular on Blue, seems right at home in TV's naughty '90s. Smits credits her for their onscreen chemistry, "Fm a clam a wall-flower," he says. "She knows how to open up people." Co-creator David Milch agrees: "Kim has an unabashed sexuality. She seems to have a lot to pull from for this role."

Delaney does identify with Diane. "We're working girls from tight families," explains the Philadelphia native who, with her four brothers, was raised with strong Irish-Catholic values. For her parents—Jack, retired head of a United Auto Workers local, and Joan, a housewife—"famlly," she says, "comes before anything."

Delaney claims she was "quiet and shy," an indifferent student at Catholic Girls High School: "I couldn't wait to get out." But she had no career plans until her senior year, 1981, when a friend introduced her to a modeling agent. Before long, the 5'7" hazel-eyed beauty was gracing covers of Glamour and Seventeen. After graduation she set out for New York City to try acting—despite a total lack of experience. "My whole family was shocked and afraid," she says. "But it was just one of those whims." She studied acting (and court reporting, just in case) for several months before landing her AMC role in 1981.

"She's got this charisma," says AMC's Michael Knight (Tad Martin). "She became outrageously popular with the public." At the height of Jenny-mania, when she was just 20, Delaney met and married actor Charles Grant (then Evan on Another World), also 20. "It was fast and furious and stupid," she said; they divorced soon afterward. By 1984, she was bored with playing Jenny, so by mutual agreement AMC's writers killed her off. After a few minor film and TV roles, Delaney made the 1988 NBC sci-fi miniseries Something Is Out There, where she fell in love with costar Joe Cortese, now 44. They married in 1989; the next year she gave birth to son Jack.

In 1992, Delaney and Cortese played together in the NBC miniseries Lady Boss. But offscreen the marriage was falling apart. She blames their May 1994 divorce on "youth and not knowing what I wanted." But, she adds, "we have a beautiful son. No matter what went down between us, that's the prize. He's my life."

Since February, she has been dating TV producer Alan Barnette, whom she met during filming of the 1992 TV movie The Broken Cord, costarring Smits. "Alan has a dry, dark sense of humor," she says, and is "more even-tempered than I am." They have no plans to marry; as she says, the most important male in her life is Jack, who is cared for by a live-in nanny when Delaney works. "The toughest part of doing NYPD Blue," she says, "is not being with my son as much as I want to." And he is growing up fast, as she found out recently when she dropped him off at school. "I asked him for a kiss, and he was completely embarrassed. I sat in the car and cried."

Delaney says she tries to avoid Hollywood parties, preferring instead to have friends like. Blue's Dennis Franz over for dinner at her rustic, four-bedroom Brentwood home. "I'm still kind of shy," she explains. This season, she hopes to explore Diane's "flawed and dark" side. "Sadness and pain is interesting to play," she says. "Everybody has that flip side." Even her? "Sure," she says. "Talk to me before I've had my caffeine in the morning." Right now though she is more than content. "I'm in a great relationship, my son is happy, and the show is terrific," she says. "Everything's in a good place."

DAN JEWEL
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles

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