Out of Africa

updated 07/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A GOOD DECADE AFTER DAISY DUKE and her kissin' cousins, the Dukes of Hazzard, drove their souped-up Dodge Charger to extinction, actress Catherine Bach is back on cable's Family Channel on Saturday nights tending a genuinely endangered species: the African black rhino. African Skies, going into its third season, offers no halters, no short shorts, no nonsense—just Bach, now 40, playing Margo Dutton, a widowed businesswoman dispatched to South Africa by her company (run by Robert Mitchum) to manage Freedom Ranch, where the black rhino roam.

Nobody can measure the distance between her days as a backwoods voluptuary and her current role as the Madonna of the veld better than Bach. "I was pigeonholed as this sex-babe in shorts," says Bach, who worked sporadically after The Dukes of Hazzard's 1985 demise. "It was very disheartening."

Even her Dukes years, it turns out, had a dark side. While little girls around the country were toting Daisy dolls and lunch boxes, Bach was battling to save a broken marriage to David Shaw, Angela Lansbury's stepson. "I was so lost," she says. "I tried to cover up all that sadness and heartbreak, not knowing where to turn. I felt really alone. Now," she adds, "things are different."

Divorced from Shaw in 1982, Bach has been happily married for the past four years to Peter Lopez, 44, an entertainment lawyer who handles, among other performers, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and David Hasselhoff. And she has African Skies, a show that delves into a number of themes that have long preoccupied her. As spokeswoman for the World Wildlife Fund, Bach testified last March before Congress on behalf of the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act of 1994, which she expects will pass this summer.

Bach also has a long-held interest in the issue of domestic violence. "I have a real problem with people being abused by other people," she says. "It's not right and it's not manly." Four years ago, in a Santa Fe hotel lobby, the actress spotted a man slapping his wife. The actress leaped on the man's back, threw him to the floor, then flipped him over and smacked him one. "Do you like that?" she demanded. "Did that feel good to you?" She later reprised the incident in an episode of Skies in which she pounded on an abusive husband so fiercely that the actor wouldn't speak to her for days.

Bach has enjoyed little domestic tranquillity in her own life. She was raised in Faith, S.Dak. (pop. 548), the daughter of Bernard Bachman, a rancher of German descent, and Norma Kucera, an acupuncturist (with a Ph.D. in philosophy from UCLA) of Mexican heritage. Her parents were divorced when Catherine was 6 and her younger brother Phillip was 5.

She studied acting at UCLA and won occasional TV and movie roles before Dukes and the skimpy shorts. After that serious work didn't come easily—though in 1986 she did play the lead in Extremities at Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter, Fla. One booster was Farrah Fawcett, who performed the role Off-Broadway. "She told me, 'Be patient, your time will come,' " Bach remembers.

Things picked up in her personal life when she met Lopez later that year at a benefit in Los Angeles, and they married in 1990. "I saw so much energy and spirit in her," Lopez says. Their Encino, Calif., home has a bedroom for Michael, Lopez's 17-year-old son by a previous marriage. "I'm very sensitive to his situation," says Bach, "and how I could make a difference in his life."

These days, though, Bach is often away, working dawn to dusk on her new series. She spends up to four months at a time on location in South Africa, renting a stucco, four-bedroom house in Houghton, the same town where President Nelson Mandela lives, and has learned a little conversational Zulu. At first she and Lopez worried about the dangers there, but finally they agreed she should go—alone. "I needed to know I could stand on my own two feet," says Bach, who stays active off-camera in animal rights' causes. Says her friend and former Dukes costar John Schneider (Bo): "She's a happy girl now, and so she has time to take care of her passions. Now that she has the freedom of spirit, she's going to do a lot of good for a lot of people."

MARK GOODMAN
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles

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