Our Resident Alien Virgin

updated 04/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

BACK IN 1985, WHEN JANE LEEVES FIRST came to the States and was taking acting classes in L.A., "no one had any idea I could do comedy," says the British-born actress, now playing a daffy physical therapist-cum-psychic opposite Kelsey Grammer's talk-radio shrink on NBC's Frasier. Given her accent, she says, "they all thought I'd end up on Dynasty." But Joan Collins wasn't the image that came to mind when classmate Faith Ford—later her roommate and then cast mate on CBS's Murphy Brown—first met Leeves. "Jane almost looked like this British punk rocker," says Ford, remembering hair dyed purple-black, tight black jeans and a leopard-print shirt. "But underneath it all, she was really scared."

Sartorially and professionally, the Leeves persona has softened, but she remains distinctively offbeat—she's now prime time's British eccentric of choice. "I am sort of known for playing wackos," concedes Leeves, 31, cheerfully. She spent four seasons on Murphy Brown as Miles Silverberg's flighty girlfriend, Audrey. She is still recognized on the street as Maria, the skittish virgin who ended up being deflowered by JFK Jr. in Seinfeld's notorious masturbation episode last year on NBC. And now there's Daphne, whom Leeves defends vociferously. "Look at all the other idiots she's surrounded by," she says. "Frasier isn't exactly normal himself, is he? Daphne has a few eccentricities, but she's an earthy, tells-it-like-it-is type who doesn't take anyone's guff."

Not a bad description for Leeves, either. "She's very reserved and keeps to herself," says Ford. And yet when they're out together, hitting the boutiques or flea markets with their other running partner, Valerie Bertinelli, "Jane will say something to me like, 'Oh, shut up, you fat cow,' and someone will overhear and say, 'Oh, she's being so mean to her!' "

Leeves's mother, Ruth, isn't sure how to explain the comic sensibilities of her daughter, who grew up the second of four children in the small town of East Grinstead, 25 miles south of London. "I worked as a nurse, and her father, Colin, is an engineer," says Ruth. "You can't get more serious than that. But Jane always had the right line at the right time, even as a little girl." By age 5, she knew she wanted to be an actress, although for some reason her early role model was Peter O'Toole. "I always wanted his part in Lawrence of Arabia," she says. (She also wanted to be a ballerina, but an ankle injury shelved any professional plans.) Fate, however, brought her closer to Benny Hill. After she moved to London at 18, she found occasional comedy parts on the comedian's TV series. The decision to pursue an American career, she says, came when she was in a transatlantic modeling show aboard the QE2: "There were all these cigar-chomping American producers onboard, saying, 'Come to the States, honey. You'll do great.' "

The producers were not to be trusted, she discovered. "I've done the whole starving-artist routine," says Leeves, who earned her bread as a dancer in rock videos and as a teaching assistant in drama class. "But I've been really single-minded about what I wanted to do. And I've been lucky." She gradually accumulated a number of TV and screen appearances on shows including the short-lived, syndicated Throb, Murphy Brown and Seinfeld. That last part was perhaps the strangest she has had to date, and she wasn't ready for the public reaction to the sex-starved Maria. Once, in a doctor's waiting room, the man sitting across from her suddenly blurted, "You're the virgin! You're the virgin!" She is prepared for the inevitable follow-up question. "I'm not a virgin," she answers. "I mean, I'm not a slut, but I'm not a virgin, either."

Asked about significant others in her own life, Leeves lets her head droop and bursts into fake sobs. "I haven't got one," wails Leeves, who once joked that she hadn't been on a date in four years. In fact, she and Murphy Brown costar Grant Shaud lived together for a year before breaking up in 1991. "It was great," she says of their still-friendly relationship, "but, alas, our planets just weren't aligned." (Shaud, in tribute to their love, named one of his cats Audrey. "She's a very affectionate cat," he reports.) Still, Leeves is determined to have children, come what may. If she has to, she says, "I'll adopt."

For now, she dotes on nephew Colin, her younger sister Katie's 2-year-old son. (Katie met her husband, Rajan Dosaj, while visiting Jane, and now lives in L.A. too.) She shares her two-bedroom Los Angeles apartment with two cats, Newman and Fat Bastard, and a (strictly platonic) roommate, Patrick Goudeau, an aerobics instructor.

Leeves won't speculate on what the future holds for her. Unlike her Frasier character, she doesn't have the benefit of an extrasensory gift. "Who knows," she says, shrugging. "Psychics might be sending messages, and I'm just not receiving them."

JOHNNY DODD in Los Angeles

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