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Making a Big Splash

updated 03/27/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/27/1995 01:00AM

Success comes to a hardworking mom

SOME PEOPLE GET THEIR INSPIRATION from above; Julie White heard voices from below. Flashback to four years ago: White, newly divorced and struggling to make it as an actress, is living in a Brooklyn apartment with her 4-year-old daughter, Alexandra. One night, she's sitting in her kitchen, feeling desperate. Should she pack up her acting dreams and head home to Austin, Texas? The answer echoes through the window.

"There was this woman who lived in my building," White recalls, sitting in the living room of her two-bedroom home in Studio City, Calif. "She had gone kind of nuts and started talking to herself. Well, I heard her start up, and I finally just opened up my window and shouted, 'That's not gonna happen to me! I'm gonna be o-kay!' "

Today, White, 33, is doing a lot better than okay as Brett Butler's best friend Nadine on ABC's Grace Under Fire. Her role in the hit series suits her down to her Texas twang. "What sets Julie apart is her unique personality," says Grace's executive producer, Marc Flanagan. "She's spunky. She's passionate. She's a good ol' girl."

And proud of it. "Look at that big guy!" White drawls, showing off a snapshot of a catfish captured on a trip back home. "We didn't have very good bait. It was out of a tube. The label said it was the new, improved blood flavor."

White wasn't raised to be the shy, retiring type. The second of three daughters of Sue Jane, a therapist, and Edwin, a dentist, White always loved being the center of attention, even in what her mother describes as "a boisterous family." In fifth grade she donned top hat and tails and wowed classmates with a song-and-dance number. After Southwest Texas State and Fordham University, she worked Off-Broadway in the early 1980s. In 1984 she married Carl Pandel, a restaurateur; Alexandra was born two years later.

Life as an actress-mother was rough enough: White was auditioning days after giving birth. "I needed the money," she says. In 1990 times got tougher. The couple split; Pandel moved to Florida. White landed a costarring role in the Broadway hit The Heidi Chronicles, but the bills kept coming.

That's when her downstairs neighbor provided inadvertent inspiration—and when White's luck changed. For the next few years, she worked in shows around the country, with Alexandra in tow. She auditioned for Nadine in the spring of 1993. "We kept reading and reading for the part of Nadine," Butler recalls, "but out of 60 or 70 women, Julie was the only one who came up and hugged me during our scene. That's what best friends do."

Butler was also impressed with White as a mother: "She kept going to look out the door, and I finally asked her who was out there. It was her daughter. Alexandra seemed so secure and cared-for, I flipped for Julie."

On the flight out from New York to L.A. for the final audition, White sat next to a hunky guy named Bill, who, after a few minutes of conversation, said, "This must be what it was like in World War II, when people met each other and just knew it was right." At the audition, she rushed up to Butler and gushed, "I met this maaaan!" After White told her the story, Butler urged White to use it as a monologue for the audition. She got the part. (Bill, however, never called.)

The chemistry between Butler and White sparks ad-libbing. In one scene, White snipped a tag off the neck of Butler's sweater. Says White: "I was cutting near her hair and I went, 'Ooops!' as if I'd clipped some off. She spun around to glare at me, and I went, 'Gotcha!' It stayed in the show and it was fun." Says Butler: "Moments like that make the show very real."

White is getting used to fame. Back home, she says, "I'll be in the Wal-Mart and find this huge crowd following me." There's no man in her life, and she's in no rush to find one. She's just happy her schedule lets her be home for dinner with Alexandra, who seems to be thriving (she visits her father on holidays). Recently the school psychologist—obviously not a Grace fan—called to tell White that Alexandra would be placed in a gifted program. "He said, 'She's so theatrical. I don't know where she gets it from!' Then White lets out a Texas whoop. "It was soooooo cool!"

BROOKS CLARK
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles

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