05/16/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
WHILE HER LONG-HAIRED CAT ROSIE claws at a frayed chair in the cluttered living room of her Santa Monica house, an upbeat Sheila Kuehl takes congratulatory phone calls in the kitchen. It's the former actress's 53rd birthday, but that's not the only thing she's celebrating. Earlier in the day, Kuehl, who played brainy Zelda Gilroy on the CBS sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-'63), filed as a candidate for a seat in the California State Assembly. "My mother always said the way you spend your birthday is the way you'll spend the rest of the year," she says. "My birthday is a good omen."
Indeed, Kuehl, who stands to become the assembly's first openly gay-female member, is favored to win the 41st district's Democratic nomination next month. Among her supporters are state senator Tom Hayden (who once represented Kuehl's largely Democratic district, which covers Santa Monica, Malibu and a portion of the San Fernando Valley) and celebrities such as Lily Tomlin and Bruce Davison. "I would vote for her for anything," says actor Dick Sargent (Bewitched), who came out of the closet at a rally with Kuehl in 1990. "She wants to do something for mankind."
Kuehl, now an adjunct law professor at L.A.'s Loyola Marymount University, is a longtime advocate of women's rights. In addition to researching gender bias in the courts, she has worked hard to pass laws in California to protect battered women. "Often," she says, "I'm speaking for people who have been silenced."
For Kuehl, such silencing is all too familiar. One of two daughters of Arthur, a window dresser, and his wife, Lillian, Kuehl grew up in a working-class neighborhood of L.A. Enrolled in dance and drama classes, she was cast on a radio series at 8 under the professional name Sheila James. After being featured on TV's Stu Erwin Show as Erwin's pigtailed daughter Jackie, she was cast as Zelda at 18.
On the set, she lied about a fictional boyfriend to divert suspicion, even though her UCLA sorority sisters had already kicked her out after finding letters written to her by her female lover. But during the show's third season, a pilot for her own spin-off series was abruptly canceled without explanation. Soon afterward, a network executive asked if they could talk. "We sat in his car, and he said some of the powers that be at CBS had decided I was just a little too butch," she says. "It scared me to death."
During Dobie's final season, in 1963, Kuehl appeared only four times. "When you're gay," she says of her reaction at the time, "you feel like you're so aberrant you don't deserve to work." Though Dwayne Hickman, who played Dobie and is now an independent TV producer, attributes her diminished airtime to the increased focus on Bob Denver's character, Maynard G. Krebs, Kuehl is certain homophobia killed her career. Her next role after Dobie, in the shortlived sitcom Broadside (with Sargent), was her last. Forced to sell her Malibu home, she took an administrative job at UCLA and rose to associate dean of students. But when a male colleague won what she considered an unfair promotion, Kuehl, then 34, quit and entered Harvard Law School in 1975.
While there, she fell in love with a woman who was already "out." Realizing that she could be open about her sexuality and still live a normal life, she began coming out, first telling her sister Jeri, 48, a lawyer, then her parents four years later. "My mom said, 'It's okay, honey, we always knew you liked girls better,' " she recalls. In 1986, Kuehl brought her then-lover, gay activist Torie Osborn, to her inauguration as president of the Women Lawyers' Association of Los Angeles and introduced her as her significant other. "What I've found," says Kuehl, who broke up with Osborn in 1991 and is now unattached, "is that life is much better outside the closet."
Campaigning out of her home office decorated with posters of heroes John F. Kennedy and James Dean, Kuehl realizes that if she's nominated, questions about her sexuality may-overshadow her politics. But for now, even her likely Republican opponent, marketing specialist Peter Eason, is insisting otherwise. "She should be evaluated by her stand on the issues," he says. "Thai's the bottom line."
MARK MORRISON in Santa Monica