Recruited to Co-Star in Major Dad, Tv's Shanna Reed Musters Her Childhood Memories for Guidance

updated 04/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Everybody here? Okay, let's get this sitcom idea meeting underway. See, you got this career Marine guy—you know the kind, confirmed bachelor, gruff, muscular, balder than a cue ball, always dressed like he's going to a war, always barking out orders like he's General Patton.

Okay, then you got this pretty widow with three daughters. She and the Marine guy (we'll make him a major) meet cute (she's a reporter interviewing him for a newspaper story), they feel this immediate repulsion for each other (she's liberal, he's conservative) combined with an immediate attraction (she's disarming, he's disarmed). And quicker than you can say, "About face," they fall in love. He pops the question in full dress blues, she says yes. Lotta laughs. End of first episode.

But wait a second. For Shanna Reed, 34, who plays Polly Cooper, the widow turned Marine wife with three smart-alecky daughters on the CBS hit Major Dad, that's not just a sitcom—it's autobiography. When Shanna was 8, her widowed mother, Mary Lou, married ex-Marine Tom Reed, who probably deserved a medal for withstanding the rebellion kicked up by middle child Shanna and her five siblings. "I led the pack," says Shanna, recalling the kids' defiance of their by-the-book stepfather. "Inside he's a teddy bear. But he tried to discipline us and write down what our orders were for the day." Precisely the sort of behavior one might expect from Shanna's co-star, Gerald McRaney, as the tough-but-lovable Maj. John D. MacGillis.

Just as Shanna's TV family comes to a truce each week, the Reed kids and their stepfather eventually ceased battling, and Shanna even managed to absorb some of the work ethic drilled into her by Tom. "She works harder than just about anybody," says actor McRaney, who also serves as the show's co-executive producer. "She puts a lot of herself into the character." Which is natural, since the character "is in my heart," says Reed.

The Kansas City-born former dancer was 7 when her father, Carl Herron, an engineer, died in a car accident. His death, she thinks, pushed her into dance. "It was a way to express myself without words," she says. In Phoenix, where the family moved after Mary Lou remarried and Tom went to work for a convention services agency that he now owns, Shanna began rigorous daily dance lessons. She spent one year at college, then left and auditioned for a job as a Las Vegas dancer. "They measured me for bottoms, and I said, 'What about the top?' " recalls Shanna. "And they said, 'Oh, honey. You're not going to be wearing a top.' "

Yeah, well then, she wouldn't be taking the job, thank you very much. She got another dance gig on the casino strip, one that wouldn't require her to go topless. After touring Europe and the Middle East in a Vegas-style revue, she headed for New York City, hoping to become a Rockette. Instead, she eventually landed a spot in the Broadway company of Dancin', then got her first taste of television with a year's stint on the soap Texas.

When her character was dropped from the show, she returned to Dancin', but soon after, figuring her dancing days were numbered, Reed, then 25, decided to move to L.A. She gave fame and fortune exactly one year to show up. It took a bit longer than that. At one point things got so bad that Reed took work as a cocktail waitress. "All the other girls made $150 a night," she remembers. "I barely came out with $30.I couldn't schmooze." Things began looking up when Reed was cast as an alcoholic Southern belle in the short-lived nightime soap For Love and Honor and as another alcoholic in the last season of The Colbys.

Things also took a promising turn in her private life. Just as Reed began work on The Colbys, she married Terrence O'Hara, whom she met in acting class. "It was instant attraction on my part," remembers O'Hara. "This woman had not only looks but talent."

Home for Reed and O'Hara, now a film director (Double Vision), is a three-bedroom Spanish-style house near Beverly Hills. Curled up on the couch, Reed nibbles grapes and reflects on a life that has never been fuller (work, puttering in the house, dance class) or happier. "For the first time in a long time, I'm not trying to plan for what's ahead. I am enjoying just so much what's going on now."

Sounds like a major achievement.

—Joanne Kaufman, Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles

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