Climbing Ivey

updated 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THEY SHARE A RICH, HEARTY CHUCKLE, Texas roots and an outlook as expansive as the Lone Star State itself. But make no mistake: Judith Ivey and her brassy Designing Women alter ego, filthy rich widow B.J. Poteet, are cut from different cloth. "I wouldn't feel comfortable in those Lillie Rubin suits, dripping with diamonds," says Ivey. "Even dressed up, I still look like a hippie. That's why I can go out without attracting attention. Until I start to talk..."

That twang of recognition is long overdue for Ivey, 41, whose prior decade-long movie career consisted of lively turns in mostly forgettable films (Hello Again; The Lonely Guy) and whose one previous sitcom venture—NBC's Down Home—lasted sixteen episodes. On DW, Ivey dared to follow the high heels—and dudgeon—of departed predecessors Delta Burke (Suzanne) and Julia Duffy (Allison). "I looked at it as an adventure," says Ivey, who wraps up her first season at Sugarbaker's on April 9. Along with stability, Ivey brought her own self-deprecating nature to the set and transplanted it onto her salty character. B.J. (unlike Suzanne and Allison) "can laugh at herself," Ivey says.

Ivey has never had a problem adapting to her surroundings. Born in Odessa, Tex., Judith and her younger brother and sister relocated around the country with their father, Nathan, a college administrator, and mother, Dorothy, who taught English. "Moving taught us about acting," says Ivey. "We learned how to alter our behavior to fit in." After earning a theater degree from Illinois State, she was married briefly at 22 to a drama professor, then headed to New York City.

In 1982, Ivey mastered a cockney accent in Broadway's Steaming, for which she won her first Tony—along with notoriety for acting in the altogether. With 1984's Hurlyburly, in which she played a victimized dancer, Judith grabbed Tony No. 2—and an encomium from director Mike Nichols, who called her one of the two best actresses he'd ever worked with. (The other? Meryl Streep.)

Four years ago Ivey met her husband, Tim Braine, 42, an HBO vice president, at a benefit bowling tournament in New York. (As a small investor in Steaming, Braine had seen her onstage.) The couple share a four-bedroom house in the low-key Los Feliz section of Los Angeles with their daughter, Maggie, 3, and two dogs and two cats. "I've made my peace with L.A.," says Ivey, who, still dedicated to the East and the theater, will make her directing debut this spring in Westport, Conn. Then, if the gods of CBS smile on Designing Women, it's back to Sugarbaker's. "B.J. is a comfortable fit," she says. "I feel I've been doing her forever."

TIM ALLIS
DAVID CRAIG and LYNN MORGAN in Los Angeles

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