05/15/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
When actor Christopher McDonald first met his Family Law costar Julie Warner last spring, he felt he already knew her. After all, his respect for Warner's artistry in the 1991 Michael J. Fox movie Doc Hollywood, in which she emerges from a lake wearing only water, knew no bounds. "I have it on DVD!" McDonald enthuses. "I know her butt better than anyone."
We'll take his word for it. Warner, 35, who plays gutsy attorney Danni Lipton on the CBS series, is now more interested in baring her soul. "Danni is protective and smart and yet so vulnerable," the actress says. "That's very close to who I am." But Bill Maher, host of ABC's late-night gabfest Politically Incorrect, where Warner is a frequent guest, disagrees. "She's a little spitfire!" he says. "I mean, she gets right in there."
Maybe so, but in the early '90s, when her burgeoning career contributed to the unraveling of a four-year romance with actor and fiancé Hank Azaria, Warner shied away from the industry fray. Just two weeks after Doc's release, she was cast as Billy Crystal's wife in Mr. Saturday Night. Her sudden success, says the actress, then 27, "didn't make me happy. I was in terrible turmoil with [Hank]." Shortly thereafter, Warner went in to read for Jurassic Park at Steven Spielberg's request. "There was no way I could focus," says Warner, who lost the part. "It had a domino effect." The couple split in 1993. "We were deeply in love and too young," says Warner of Azaria, who married Helen Hunt last July. "Now we're both so happy, it's like another lifetime."
Six months after the breakup, Warner met writer-producer Jonathan Prince while working with him on a play in L.A. "He had this incredible positive energy," she recalls. "It was as if my life shifted." Prince, 41, was no less smitten: "I told my best friend, 'I think she's the one.' " They wed two years later.
Warner took a breather in 1997 when son Jackson was born. "You may as well go sit in a cave for nine months," says the actress, who gained 40 lbs. during her pregnancy. After he was born, she recalls, "I just wanted to stare at him all day long." But six months later, eager to return to acting, she struggled to come back. "I had those auditions where you walk out and think, 'It's over,' " she says. Actually, it was just beginning. In 1999, Warner nailed a three-episode career jump-start on Party of Five. A month later, CBS offered her the part on Law.
Raised in New York City with her brother James, 25, who now works as a manager for the city's Parks Department, Warner was exposed to the arts early on. Her parents—literary agent Naomi, 60, and conductor and jingle composer (Tic-Tac, Dunkin' Donuts) Neil, 70—showered Julie with private lessons in everything from the flute to horseback riding. But it was in acting that she discovered her true passion.
Warner went on to major in theater at Brown and headed for Hollywood following her 1987 graduation. "My mom was so dramatic at the airport," she recalls with a sigh. "She said, 'Make a good life for yourself.' Like I was off to the Wild West or something." Warner landed her first major role the next year as the shock-comic's girlfriend on HBO's Andrew Dice Clay: The Diceman Cometh. At the audition she was instructed to spar with Clay. "He was a bit surprised at the four-letter words coming out of this little mouth," she says. After a handful of TV guest spots, Warner got the Doc Hollywood gig in 1990.
Reclining on a plush couch in her four-bedroom Spanish-style home in Beverly Hills, Warner insists she has no regrets about revealing her assets for her celebrated Doc role. "My makeup artist said, 'Someday you'll look back and say, "God, my body was so great!" ' " she says. "I'm already at that point!"
Julie Jordan in Los Angeles