Copping a New Beat
It doesn't take long before a student approaches Thompson, 41, with his own scoop. "I loved you on Babylon 5," he says, referring to her stint as Talia on the sci-fi saga from 1994 to '95. "We're so glad you're here." "You know what?" she says, thanking him and signing an autograph. "I love it here." Then it's back to work, dashing out her script for a live feed at noon. "She busts her butt," says Pollchik.
The alternative was falling flat on her face. Last spring Thompson, then in her fourth season playing the stoic Det. Jill Kirkendall on NYPD Blue, revealed that she would be willing to abandon her seven-figure salary for a job in TV news. "It was so boring," Thompson says of the downtime between takes on shows like Falcon Crest (she was the vixen Genelle Erickson). "I'm not good with sitting around for hours."
Starting in 1999, the lifelong TV-news junkie put in a year of long-distance journalism prep with Jack Hubbard, associate director of Stanford University's News Service and a veteran of CBS News. (The former model, who never finished high school before leaving Vero Beach, Fla., for New York City, also earned her GED during this time.) Working from the NYPD Blue set in Los Angeles, she faxed him so much homework—rewriting wire-service stories in broadcast style—"my machine used to catch on fire," jokes Hubbard.
Now, nine frantic months into her yearlong contract, "I've made the transition," says Thompson. She produces up to 15 stories a week, usually for the noon and 4:30 broadcasts. In August she broke the nationally covered case of Anamarie Regino, an overweight 3-year-old taken from her parents by state officials concerned for her health. And thanks to her days on Blue, she feels at home when she visits the police department. "It's one of my favorite places to hang out," she says.
The KRQE crew, on the other hand, welcomed her with a skeptical silence. When news director Dan Salamone hired her last spring to give a ratings boost to the city's consistently third-ranked local news station, "everyone hated me," says Thompson, who won't disclose her new salary but says it's a mere fraction of her old earnings. "Rightfully so. They've had to deal with ridicule from the other journalists in town." Some thought she was gunning for anchor, she says, "but that was never my intention." There was also concern about her stiff, theater-trained delivery and actor's reluctance to look at the camera. "The hardest part," says Thompson, who was sent off for more coaching, "was to be myself."
But tirelessly determined to nail this new role, she was up at 4 a.m. to read newspapers. She sometimes put in 22-hour shifts. Finally the newsroom thawed (and ratings nudged upward, which admittedly reflects many factors). "To walk away from acting and start something completely new," says staffer Salle Jayson, "is a courageous thing."
Although Thompson is in touch with former costar Kim Delaney, she's learning to forget celebrity life. Having sold her L.A. home, she rents a three-bedroom house with her widowed mother, Mary Thompson Allen, 61, a retired cardiac nurse, and Alec, 8, her son by an ex-fiancé" she declines to name. "This is what I'd been seeking," she says of her lower profile. "I always did my own cleaning, took out the trash."
Off-camera, the twice-divorced Hollywood escapee has eased into a new romance with Kevin McKown, 48, copublisher of Southwest Aviator magazine. They met in August, when she covered an emergency landing he made in his single-engine plane. McKown, divorced with a 24-year-old daughter, remains dazzled by his on-the-go girlfriend: "It's like trying to hold on to a comet."
He fully knows that dreaming of an anchor job someday, Thompson plans to approach bigger media markets when her contract is up in May. If more hurdles lie ahead, she's ready. "I have all these stupid things pasted on my refrigerator," she says. "One says, 'If you're going to go through hell, keep going.' "
Michael Haederle in Albuquerque