Scarlett Woman

updated 11/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE CIGARS WERE SOMETHING NEW. The petticoats were definitely new. But for Jean Smart, still fondly remembered by fans for her five-year run as Charlene, ditziest of TV's Designing Women—the southern accent was familiar and so was the feeling. Once again, she had bypassed Bimbo Limbo—that rut assigned to 5'10" blonde ex-series stars—with an unlikely part.

Now she's playing Sally Brewton, the horse-riding, cigar-chomping pal of Rhett Butler in Scarlett, the ballyhooed, $45 million, 8-hour miniseries based on Alexandra Ripley's 1991 sequel to Gone with the Wind. (The production airs on CBS, Sunday, Nov. 13, and on Nov. 15, 16 and 17.)

"I was flattered, astounded," says Smart, 43, of being offered the role. Then she read Ripley's novel, in which Brewton is described as "very tiny, with a face like a monkey," and began to wonder. "Did they read it and shout, 'Get me Jean Smart'?" she asks.

Just about, says Scarlett executive producer Robert Halmi Sr., but not because of any simian similarities. "Jean is a wonderful all-around actress," says Halmi, who offered her the Scarlett part after viewing her performance as a farmer in an early cut of The Yearling, a TV movie he was also producing. "She can change from glamor to feeling. You can tell from the face and the eyes if it comes from the soul." Smart, more simply, saw the chance with Sally to have fun playing someone who "just enjoys life, a witty, charming person."

Smart could stand a little fun. The Seattle native has been working almost nonstop since graduating from the University of Washington. The daughter of a teacher, Douglas, and his wife, Kay, she began her career in local theater companies, moving from there into regional theater and larger productions in New York City. And her more recent résumé has been both eclectic and extremely demanding.

Along with quirky, low-budget films like The Mistress, with Robert De Niro, she has appeared in a string of difficult TV movies, including The Yarn Princess (in which she played a retarded woman fighting for custody of six children) and Overkill, in which she played Aileen Wuornos, the Florida prostitute turned serial killer—a role that gave her pause. "What," says Smart, "did I do to make them think of me?"

The answer to that, says her husband of seven years, actor Richard Gilliland, who played Annie Potts's boyfriend on DW and met his future wife on the set, is that Smart is so obviously a talented, versatile actress. "The best tool you have is who you are, and Jean knows instinctively how to use parts of herself in the roles she plays," says Gilliland, 44. "By now, Jean is perceived as someone who is capable of doing more than one or two things."

With a few exceptions. Preparing for Scarlett, there was the problem with horses. Smart fell off hers. Nor did she fare much better with the period costumes. The bustles, she says, made her look "like a ship." And don't get her started on corsets. "I had it pulled too tight at first," she recalls. "I thought I'd ruptured something." It didn't help that when she asked costar Timothy Dalton, who plays Rhett, how she looked in her period costumes, he replied, "You looked like...you."

"He was supposed to say, 'You looked gorgeous!' " says Smart.

Still she is fond of Dalton, who recently denounced the Scarlett character as, well, something unprintable. "He's a doll," she says. "He not only loves women, he truly likes them. I would love to see him fall madly in love."

Smart is as devoted to the men in her real life: husband Richard and their son, Connor, 5, whose birth followed months of medical drama. Diagnosed with diabetes at age 13, Smart knew that any pregnancy would be a risk. Indeed, when she accidentally became pregnant with Connor, her blood-sugar levels were so out of control that her doctor recommended abortion. "It was their best medical call," says Gilliland. "They didn't think it was healthy. We were both scared." Even so, Smart decided to have the baby and became, she says, "consumed with being a conscientious diabetic," checking her blood-sugar levels 12 times a day and injecting enough insulin "to kill a horse."

Connor arrived in good shape and is now thought, at least by his parents, to be exceptionally brainy. Smart will tell you how her son taught himself to name all 50 states off his map place mat. When Mary Steenburgen, currently costarring with Smart in the play Marvin's Room in Los Angeles, joined them for dinner recently, Smart told Connor their visitor was from the President's home state. Connor not only knew it was Arkansas, he proceeded to name all the neighboring states. Smart wasn't impressed—not a bit. "We're saving up," she says, "for MIT."

BETSY ISRAEL
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles

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