01/13/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
Nancy Travis wanted Ted Danson to raise their love child in Three Men and a Baby. While filming her 1999 sitcom Work with Me, she had a much simpler
request. "Our camera crew was also shooting Becker, and I'd always say, 'Say hi to Ted for me,' " says Travis. "And they'd say, 'You should come on the show, you could be his girlfriend or something.' I was like, 'Oh yeah, that will happen.' " Three years later, she says, "I get this call: 'Do you want to come on and be his potential love interest?' "
Reteaming with Danson (after 1987's Baby and its 1990 sequel) as his kooky neighbor—and romantic foil—Chris Conner, "I walked in," she says, "and he just gave me this huge hug like no time had passed."
The rest of the crew has embraced Travis, 41, just as warmly. "She already knows all the cameramen and crew names; that usually takes years to do," says Becker executive producer Dave Hackel. "And I enjoy watching Nancy and Ted meddle with one another. It's just working out on every level."
"She has breathed a lot of fresh air into our set," says Danson, who returns the favor by breathing on Travis after lunch. "If she can pretend she finds me attractive after a tuna fish sandwich, then she's my kind of girl."
The kind who will "slip in and out of accents while we're rehearsing," Travis says. "I was doing Scarlett O'Hara one day, and he was hysterical. We can joke around like that; we turn it on and off."
At day's end, though, she is serious about relaxing in her five-bedroom L.A. home with husband Rob Fried, 43, a producer, and sons Benjamin, 5, and Jeremy, 15 months. Dressing up for parties is "too much effort," she says. "I just want to be with my family."
As a result her son Benjamin has remained refreshingly grounded. During one visit to the Becker set, "I thought Ben would be taken with the cameras, but he was more interested in [costar] Shawnee Smith's daughter," says Travis. "They were running around playing Lilo & Stitch. I'm thankful he doesn't have any awe about what I do."
Quite unlike how Travis felt when she was Ben's age. Born in Queens to Gordon, 67, a retired sales executive, and Theresa, also 67, a retired social worker, she grew up in Framingham, Mass., and Baltimore, "doing little skits and anything to make my family look at me," she says. She plunged into school plays at 7, starring as Wilbur the Pig in Charlotte's Web the following year. "When I got the lead," she says, "I was hooked."
Her acting ambition brought her to New York University, where "she'd always do imitations of her professors," says her brother Gordon Jr., 37, a computer software manager. She also absorbed enough from them to graduate with a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1983. Travis then learned the art of balancing trays as a waitress while struggling to make it as an actress in New York City. She shared a studio apartment with two other women, "watching TV and mice running around," she recalls. "You'd go to bed and say, 'I hope they stay on the floor.' "
They did, but Travis moved on. She toured the country in 1984 as an understudy in Brighton Beach Memoirs and worked in commercials before making her feature-film debut—opposite a "very warm and funny" Danson—in Three Men and a Baby. A lead role in the 1990 Richard Gere drama Internal Affairs thrust Travis into the Hollywood spotlight, which called for endless schmoozing sessions with studio executives. One such meeting was with Fried, then executive vice president at Columbia Pictures. "He opened the door, and it was love at first sight," she says.
"She opened up a new universe for me," says Fried. "I come from a conservative background, and she was very expansive." They paired up both personally—she moved into his L.A. home in 1990, and they married in 1994—and professionally (she starred in 1993's So I Married an Axe Murderer, which he produced). After her 1995 sitcom Almost Perfect, Travis downshifted her acting career to raise a family. She got back in the game with a splashy role last January in Stephen King's miniseries Rose Red.
Then Becker came calling. "It's perfect because the hours are predictable and not that strenuous," Travis says of her new job, which left ample time to cook a Thanksgiving feast for eight. "Martha Stewart would have been proud," says Fried. She's already looking forward to her next project with Danson. "We joke that when we're 80, we'll go on the road and do a show," she says. Three Old Men and a Lady has a nice fine to it.
Julie Jordan in Los Angeles