Say Cheese

updated 01/12/1998 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/12/1998 01:00AM

VICKI LEWIS CRINGES WHEN SHE RECALLS A creepy—actually, make that crawly—episode from her years as a struggling New York City actress in the 1980s. After dining on peanut butter and tea in her studio apartment one evening, she crashed on a tattered mattress only to wake up with a jolt minutes later. "A water bug bigger than my eye was on my eye," Lewis says. "I flicked it and started crying. I was, like, 'I can't take this anymore!' "

These days Lewis, 37, has smaller worries: the ants that swarm her two-bedroom rented pad in Los Angeles's Laurel Canyon. But she can afford an exterminator. In her third year as the gum-smacking, wisecracking secretary Beth on the NBC sitcom NewsRadio, Lewis is also in theaters with her first big movie role, playing a conniving sister-in-law to her old pal Nathan Lane in the comedy MouseHunt. Says Lane, who met Lewis when they costarred on Broadway in 1985: "Vicki has always had a wicked sense of humor."

Other friends say Lewis, who jokes that she beat out Madonna and Courtney Love for the Mouse Hunt part, will do anything for a laugh. "She's not afraid to turn her face into a grotesque shape, like crinkle up her nose rodent-like or make suggestive movements," says Phil Hartman of his 5'1" flame-haired NewsRadio costar. "She goes to extremes."

Lewis even got a giggle out of tough-guy actor Nick Nolte when they met on the set of the film I'll Do Anything in 1993 (her part was later cut). "I fell down laughing," recalls the stoic Nolte, who describes himself as "a big rock." The two got more serious the following year, when Lewis moved into Nolte's Malibu home for three years, although both say their four-year relationship has since cooled. "I don't know where it's at now," says Lewis without guile. "He's a very important part of my life, and he always will be. But he lives in Malibu, and I live here." Nonetheless she remains clearly smitten. "He's 100 percent charm. He turns ordinary life into a big field trip." Nolte praises her fearlessness. "I've never been on a Broadway stage," he says. "That's the horror of all horrors. But she's done it. She has moxie."

Performance anxiety has never really been a problem for Lewis, the older daughter of Jim Lewis, 64, an air traffic supervisor, and his wife, Marlene, 63, a nursing administrator (sister Denise, 33, is an accountant in Los Angeles). Growing up in Cincinnati, Lewis began performing at age 7, putting on mock Miss America pageants with her neighbors. "The other kids were passive about that stuff, but she was focused," says Jim. "She had a need for attention."

Two years after graduating from high school, and following short stints at the University of Cincinnati and the nearby College Conservatory of Music, Lewis moved to Manhattan, where she initially found work waitressing and delivering singing telegrams. In 1982 she landed a part in the Broadway musical Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? That led to roles in other Broadway musicals, but in 1994 Lewis based herself in L.A. It wasn't until she followed the advice of actress Anne Heche, an I'll Do Anything costar with whom she rented a house that same year, that Lewis's career blossomed. "She said, 'You're a sexy woman,' " Lewis recalls. " 'Why are you dressing in those musical-comedy theater outfits from the '80s?' I would curl my hair and look zany for auditions. She said, 'Less is more,' took me to Armani and bought me a suit."

Lewis's new attitude paid off in 1994, when she began landing a few guest spots on hit sitcoms, including one sexy stint on Seinfeld as Jason Alexander's perfect secretary, before her NewsRadio role came along in 1995. Now that her fortunes have risen and Lewis can splurge on filet mignon instead of peanut butter—and cruise L.A. in her black BMW (a gift from Nolte)—she worries less about waking up eye-to-antenna with a large insect. She will, however, help Matthew Broderick duke it out with the mother of all pesky creatures in next summer's Godzilla. For Lewis that's the ultimate empowerment. "Now I understand why Arnold Schwarzenegger makes action movies," she says. "Can a woman get a testosterone rush?"

JEREMY HELLIGAR
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles

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