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updated 03/11/2002 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/11/2002 01:00AM

In December, when NBC's hit series Providence broke for Christmas, Paula Cale treated herself to a weeklong theater tour of London. Between plays Cale, who portrays Joanie, the hapless kid sister of Dr. Sydney Hansen (Melina Kanakaredes), was so excited she put on a bit of a show herself. "I'd be bundled up on the streets and singing Christmas carols like 'O Come All Ye Faithful' and a lot of My Fair Lady," Cale says. "I didn't care if people thought, 'Who is that crazy person?'"

There's been no call yet for Cale's TV character to break into song, but Joanie's tribulations—a miscarriage, a parent's death, alcoholism and love with all the wrong men—have struck a resonant chord with the actress. Cale, 31, has weathered a painful divorce (from folk musician Bennett Cale), her mother's death from cancer and, since college, recurring bouts of depression. "It's still something that I'm fighting every day," she says.

It's a battle—judging from the feelings of her Providence cohorts—that she's winning. "She will sit and knit and chat with everybody," says executive producer Mike Fresco. "And when one of our cast members is sick, these vegetarian dinners will appear on their doorstep—dinners Paula makes and delivers herself." Cale (born Korologos) is especially close to fellow Greek-American Kanakaredes, whose 21-month-old daughter Zoe calls her Auntie Paula. "Paula has a sharp sense of humor," says her TV sib. "She does this Julie Andrews impression that will make you pee in your pants laughing. It's so funny."

The wit comes in handy when Cale talks politics with her dad, Tom Korologos, a Washington lobbyist who has helped George W. Bush appointees get confirmed. "I know Paula is to the left of me," says Korologos, 68, "much to my chagrin. But she is still a Republican." His daughter (who supports Providence dad Mike Farrell's anti-death penalty campaign) sighs. "I am so not a Republican," she says. "But I am very proud of my dad."

Korologos and his wife, Joy, a homemaker, raised Paula and her siblings Ann, 39 and a Virginia mother of two, and Philip, 36, a Manhattan lawyer, in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Great Falls, Va. After graduating from Langley High School, Cale says, she "was wanted by every sorority" at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. But in March 1989, midway through her freshman year, she woke up "under this heavy cloud," she says. "I could not get out of bed, I could not shower."

Diagnosed with depression and treated for 10 days in a general hospital, Cale went back to school, earning a 1993 B.F.A. in acting from DePaul University. That same year she scored her first big part—as a Picasso groupie in Steve Martin's play Picasso at the Lapin Agile. During the show's L.A. run she was spotted by Candice Bergen, who in 1994 cast her in a recurring role as an ex-MTV veejay turned newscaster on her CBS hit Murphy Brown. Cale's father was not amused, joking to his friend and Murphy Brown critic ex-Vice President Dan Quayle that "I'd rather she get a job in porn than on that liberal show."

In 1996 he had a more pressing concern: that Paula would relapse into depression (which she had managed with therapy and antidepressants) after hearing that her mother had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Instead, what he calls Joy's "quiet calmness" steadied their daughter. "My mother never cried once about dying," says Cale, who was then starring onstage in Philadelphia in Bunny, Bunny as the late comedian Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989. After Joy's death at 60 in 1997, "I said in my mind, 'Thanks, Gilda, for preparing me,'" says Cale.

She credits her family for helping her get through her next big trauma, the 1999 divorce from her husband of four years. "We met through a friend when I was working on Picasso and got married quickly," she says, but then "we started moving in different directions." By the time the couple split, Cale had landed the part on Providence. Currently unattached and living in a two-bedroom, white clapboard cottage in L.A., Cale takes pride in her progress against her illness. In a home office hangs a card that reads, "The barn burnt. Now I can see the moon." "That sums up every hard thing I've been through," says Cale. "I have taken those things and made a better me."

Michael A. Lipton
Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles

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