Leaner and Meaner

updated 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

SHE ENDED LAST SEASON WITH AN IMAGE-shattering fall—through the ceiling, no less—in the embrace of her womanizing boss. Roxanne in her teddy, Arnie in his briefs, they landed clutching and blushing before their colleagues on a McKenzie, Brackman conference-room floor. This, after L.A. Law's long-suffering secretary had already lost 45 lbs. and her hapless dump-on-me demeanor. But such risks aren't enough for Susan Ruttan, the Emmy-nominated actress who created Roxanne; now she has to go out and play a baby-killer.

This Monday, Nov. 11, Ruttan, 42, stars opposite Veronica (Hill Street Blues) Hamel in Deadly Medicine, based on the true story of a Kerrville, Texas, pediatrician (Hamel) wrongly suspected of murdering infants when her nurse (Ruttan) was the culprit. In real life, the nurse, Genene Jones, is serving 99 years for murder. For Ruttan, who saw Jones on videotape, penetrating the psyche of a child-killer proved chilling. "I was so glad when it was over," she says. "I felt like I had carried her around. Because there was no venting it, I had to keep her with me."

Murder was certainly harder to play than sex. When Law's writers last season decided Rox would bare a little skin, the actress was game, but says, "It was embarrassing." ("Oh, she loved it," counters Corbin Bernsen, who plays Arnie.) In any case, the clinch—and an expanding series role—were a payoff, of sorts, for her dieting triumph. Ruttan says the impetus came in 1989 when she stepped on the scale and realized she'd gained 40 lbs. over 3½ years. "I had concealed it from myself," she says. In four months, the 5'6" actress shed them all—and five more—on the Jenny Craig program, based on smaller, low-fat portions and a change in motivation. "I no longer eat to make myself feel better," says Ruttan, who also works out with weights, pounds her home Stairmaster and takes fast walks with her new husband, boom-microphone operator Randy McDonald, 44.

Remodeling their four-bedroom "Argentine-California-Japanese"—decorated house in the Hollywood Hills, she and Randy are creating the kind of stable family she missed early in life. Growing up an only child in the country near her birthplace of Oregon City, Oreg., Ruttan never felt close to her parents. Her father, Daryl Dunrud, an itinerant logger, and mother Helen, a retired nurse, divorced when she was 2. Her mother, who had two children by a previous marriage, moved to northern California and allowed Ruttan to be adopted by her paternal grandmother, Elsie. At 12, after her grandmother died, she was sent to a hoarding school in Portland but spent holidays with her father. "I didn't feel resentment or anger towards my parents," she says. "I just wasn't happy."

Moving to Santa Rosa after gradual ion to be with her mother, Susan quickly met and married Mel Ruttan, a 23-year-old former Green Beret. Three years later he died in a motorcycle accident, leaving Susan devastated. "I didn't quite know what to do with the rest of my life," she recalls.

Eventually she enrolled in the theater program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Four years of local theater, followed by a year off-Broadway, landed her in L.A. in 1980 with numerous TV guest spots.

Ruttan met McDonald on the L.A. Law set in 1986, but the romance didn't happen for two years. He was in a failing marriage, and she was reeling from a broken second marriage to another actor, "a friend who was just not the right person," she says. Afterward, "I decided I would be like Katharine Hepburn. I might have a long-term relationship, but we'd have separate houses and I would concentrate on my work. Then Randy came along..."

Impulsively, they wed at their own Halloween party last year, with Bernsen in attendance as a clown and then-costar Harry Hamlin as a gangster. Ruttan wore black tulle—"my dead-bride costume"—and McDonald sported a skeleton suit. Says Ruttan: "It was very cool."

Now they're beginning to think about parenting. And ever-changing Ruttan is learning to savor her successes. "I'm not easily satisfied," she says. "A part of me likes to think that everything falls into place by itself, but I've worked hard. I guess for me I'm as content as I'll ever be."

TIM ALLIS
KRISTINA JOHNSON in Los Angeles

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