Showing Off Her Cockeyed Humor as a Vietnam Deejay, Nancy Giles Seizes Her Own China Beach Head

updated 03/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

The producers of ABC's China Beach knew that Nancy Giles was a native New Yorker who had almost never set foot in any car except a taxi. So when they hired the actress and comedienne to play Pfc. Frankie Bunsen, "They thought it would be really funny," says Giles, "if the first thing my character did was drive a jeep badly."

She didn't let them down. Lurching and bucking along, Giles drove with expert ineptitude right to the spot where she was supposed to stop. Supposed to stop. Unfortunately, the gearshift stuck and Giles forgot where the brake was. "Everybody scattered," she says, laughing. "But I didn't hit the camera!"

Not with the car. But Giles has made an impact on the dramatic comedy China Beach, which features her character, a savvy screwball who catches on as a gabby Army deejay, in 10 of this season's 13 episodes. "She has a real wisdom, the kind of insight that a Robin Williams has," says executive consultant William Broyles Jr., an ex-lieutenant in Vietnam. "We found Nancy, then figured out the character."

Giles, 28, grew up in Queens, the fifth of seven children born to a draftsman and a housewife. She discovered her gift for comedy as a high school senior when she was asked to parody a stuffy English teacher in a class skit. She did it so well, she says, that "all of a sudden people I had always admired wanted to sign my yearbook."

After studying writing at Oberlin, Giles spent 2½ years touring with Chicago's Second City Comedy Theater, then in 1985 moved back to New York, where off-Broadway roles won her a Theatre World Award and then a New York Times rave that led to a China Beach tryout.

This spring Giles will be antically evident in two movies: Woody Allen's segment of New York Stories and Penn & Teller Get Killed (currently she's one of the sympathetic secretaries in Working Girl). So nervous during her China Beach tryout that she later collapsed in a chair with her head between her knees, Giles is now zipping around L.A. in a new Mustang and counting her blessings. "What I always wanted was a job like China Beach and to be in New York," she says. "But that would be too good, and I'd be hit by a bus immediately. Nothing this good should ever happen."

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