Ode to Billie Jo

updated 07/31/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/31/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Playing bubbly Billie Jo Bradley on the 1960s TV show Petticoat Junction was never much of a stretch for Meredith MacRae. "She was always trying to make everyone happy," recalls her TV sister Linda Kaye Henning (Betty Jo). And MacRae, 56, who died of brain cancer July 14, usually succeeded. "There was no bad time as far as Meredith was concerned," says her friend Shirley Jones, who costarred with MacRae's late father, Gordon, in the 1955 movie version of Oklahoma! "She was one of the most optimistic angels I've ever met."

Acting came naturally too. Her first turn for the cameras came at age 4, when the MacRae clan taped a commercial for Sara Lee pound cake. While her siblings were gobbling up the food, recalls her mother, actress Sheila MacRae, 73, "Meredith turned to the other kids and said, 'You're not supposed to eat it now. You are supposed to look at the camera and then eat it.' "

After she was diagnosed with cancer in 1999, MacRae, who had a daughter, Allison, 25, from her marriage to actor Greg Mullavey, still entertained pals at the Manhattan Beach, Calif., home she shared with her third husband, businessman Phil Neal, 59. To shield them from her health battles, "she'd say, 'Tell everybody I'm in the hospital because my arm was broken or I fell down,' " says her mom. And even in her last months, "it was never hard to visit her because of her incredible spirit," says Betty Lou Bender, a friend who produced the Los Angeles talk show that MacRae cohosted in the '80s. Henning agrees. "Wherever she is now," she says, "she is going to become the official greeter. There's nobody better to be that."

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