02/08/1999 at 01:00 AM EST
It was the kind of moment TV veterans dread. "I was in the post office, and an older gentleman walked up to me," recalls Joyce DeWitt. "He asked me if I was Joyce DeWitt, and I said yes." Then, says the former Three's Company actress, "there was a dead silence until he finally said, 'God, you must have been a lot younger when you did that show.' "
Plenty of actresses would have returned the remark to sender. DeWitt, 49, just laughed it off. Nearly 15 years after the bawdy hitcom's end, the still-bubbly brunette has no regrets about her decision to ditch Hollywood for more than a decade. "I found it to be such a heartless place," she says. "I wanted to step away from it all before I became jaded and hardened."
For 10 years she mostly traveled, soaking up spirituality. "I took journeys to Egypt and Peru, sweated through the Amazon jungles and walked through the rice fields of Bali," she says. She also worked for charity causes, hosting such events as 1987's Presidential End Hunger Awards in Washington, D.C. Then, starting with the 1995 ABC TV movie Spring Fling!, she began "inching" her way back into showbiz. She plays a mom in a not-yet-released independent film titled 18 and is prepping for a role in a movie starring women's basketball great Cheryl Miller. A few months ago, preparing to return to full-time acting, she sold her home in Santa Fe (she now rents a friend's guest house there and also shares homes with pals in Los Angeles and San Francisco). "A part of me loves comedy," she says. "Anytime I can make people laugh, I'm thrilled."
After earning a bachelor's degree in English from Ball State University in 1972 and a master's from UCLA's theater program, the Indiana-raised DeWitt was snapped up by ABC for Company, which premiered in 1977. Despite its low IQ, the double entendre-laden show—John Ritter's Jack pretended he was gay to room with ditzy Chrissy (Suzanne Somers) and slightly more sensible Janet (DeWitt)—quickly soared into the Top 5.
For the first four seasons, the threesome got along as well off-camera as on. But the camaraderie didn't last. In 1980, Somers touched off a media storm when she demanded a raise from $30,000 to $150,000 an episode. Producers refused, and Somers—her role reduced, then eliminated—wound up barely speaking to Ritter and DeWitt. Nearly 20 years after the TV tempest, DeWitt still nurses a grudge against the ThighMaster queen, who she says portrayed her and Ritter unfairly in her 1998 memoir After the Fall. Among Somers's "lies," says DeWitt: Somers "said we were jealous of her" and accused her costars of approving of her campaign (which DeWitt denies), then not supporting her. Series executive producer Ted Bergmann says Somers "enjoyed lording it over" DeWitt. "I'd hear her bragging, 'I'm going to be in this movie. How come you're not doing anything?' It would bring Joyce to tears." Ritter, 50, recently patched things up with Somers (who declines to comment) but says that pal DeWitt "is certainly justified in a lot of her feelings for Suzanne."
DeWitt now enjoys riding horses, meditating and, she says, "literally hugging trees" on mountain hikes. Childless, she stayed single during her exile (she previously had lengthy romances with Rhoda actor Ray Buktenica, from whom she split in 1980, and Hollywood lawyer Henry Bushkin). "Now," she says, "I'm looking around and saying, 'Hey, a date sure would be nice.' " She isn't worried, though. "Wisdom comes with time," she says. "Everything else before this was just warm-up."
Chris Coats in Santa Fe