Back on the Track

updated 04/10/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/10/1995 01:00AM

IT WAS A STRAIGHTFORWARD PLEA from a 2-year-old missing his mom. For Deborah Norville, it was also a turning point. Three days before Christmas 1993, Norville was alone in a hotel room in São Paulo, Brazil, on assignment for CBS News, when her son Niki phoned from Manhattan. He wanted her home—immediately. After she hung up, Norville recalls, "I cried until 3 in the morning."

For the next few months, Norville, 36, kept trying to do it all—even flying from New York City to San Francisco and back in a day so she could see her family. But by last fall, when her contract with CBS was up, she was more than ready to accept an offer to anchor Inside Edition, TV's syndicated newsmagazine. Edition brings her back to daily television for the first time since she quit NBC's Today show in 1991, after a controversial 3 1/2-year stint—and it also lets her get home for dinner with husband Karl Wellner, 40, a banker, Niki and his 4-month-old brother, Kyle. Getting home, says Norville, is "very important when you've got two kids to care for and a husband to keep happy."

She's trying to keep her new bosses happy too. Five years after she became famous—or notorious—as the younger, blonder newcomer hired by NBC to replace Today's, much-loved Jane Pauley, Norville still draws an audience. On her first appearance on Inside Edition, ratings shot up 15 percent—although they have since leveled off. Co-executive producer Charles Lachman attributes the initial jump in part to the "curiosity factor." Says Lachman: "People are interested in how she looks and sounds."

She sounds like someone who has taken her lumps and keeps coming back. Norville quit Today while on maternity leave with Niki because, she explains, she was fed up with all the negative publicity. At that point, she says, "there wasn't a person in television who would have bet 50 cents that I'd ever return." Norville, Wellner and Niki retreated to a cottage in the South of France for three months, where she tried to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. Even then, Wellner says, he knew Norville would someday end up back on the air. "TV is her medium, her home," he says. Ultimately, he thought, she would have to prove she could make it. "There's a fighting spirit in her I admire a lot," he says.

But her reentry was slow, starting with an ABC Radio Network interview and call-in show that she ran out of her Manhattan apartment and suburban New York home from September 1991 until October 1992. That year, Norville joined CBS as a reporter for two newsmagazine shows, Street Stories and America Tonight. Both eventually left the air, and she ended up working for the CBS Evening News and filling in as Sunday night anchor. Still, she says, there were "great spaces of time in which I was kind of hanging, looking for things to do." And when she was on the road, even with a terrific assignment, she felt guilty leaving husband and son.

With Inside Edition, Norville's life may be more regular, but it's hardly less strenuous. She gets up at 6 a.m., feeds Kyle and Niki, drops Niki off at preschool (a live-in nanny cares for Kyle) and drives into her Manhattan office by 9:30. Inside Edition is usually taped by 2:30; Norville is back home by 7.

As she juggles her roles as journalist, wife and mother, Norville says her model is her own mother, Merle, who worked with Norville's father, Zack, in the family carpet business in Dalton, Ga., and always had time for Norville and her three sisters: Nancy, 38, Cathy, 34, and Patti, 32. Bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis when Norville was 14, Merle continued to run the household until she died six years later. "She used to tell us, 'You are my hands and feet,' " says Norville, "and we were."

Norville's father thinks taking on grown-up responsibility at an early age instilled a sense of purpose in all his daughters. "They are achieving people," he says. (Norville's sisters, all married with children, work for Norville Industries, the family business.) That determination, says Deborah, helped her work her way back after Today. "You can sit and moan and groan, or you can say, 'I'm going to go on.' That's what I decided to do."

After all these years, criticism doesn't bother her as much as it used to. Recently, Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales wrote that by going to Inside Edition, Norville had "traded in her credentials as a journalist for good." Norville begs to differ. "I don't think my credibility as a journalist happens to be because my paychecks come from ABC or CBS or NBC News. It has to do with the work I've done and the way I've conducted myself and the people I've interviewed over the years."

When she took the. Inside-Edition job, ex-anchor Bill O'Reilly advised her to "read up on O.J. Simpson." Says Norville: "It's no different over at CBS, where there's a team called the O.J. Unit." At the network, she says, one of her buddies is assigned to the tabloid detail; part of his job is to scan the National Enquirer. "You tell me what the difference is," she says. "The lines between tabloid and mainstream journalism are so blurred that it's made it very difficult for everybody out there."

This time around, Norville—who at one point caught flak for a 1991 PEOPLE photo that showed her nursing Niki—makes no apologies for who she is. "I am me. I breast-feed my baby, and, yes, I do love to sew, and I do love to do all this fix-it stuff, but I still like interviewing the Secretary of State when given the chance. And if that makes me weird and different, sue me!"

BROOKS CLARK
NANCY MATSUMOTO in New York City

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