New Day

updated 03/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

SITTING ON THE FLOOR OF HER FOUR-bedroom home in the San Fernando Valley, Valerie Bertinelli, at 36, still seems as sunny and vulnerable as Barbara Cooper, the middle-American teen she played 22 years ago on CBS's One Day at a Time. But some things have changed. She's blonde. "It's easier to cover my gray this way," says Bertinelli, who lightened her auburn mane in 1995 and liked it. "I started going gray when I was 21."

Then there's her newly pierced belly button. "I have no idea why I did this," she says with a laugh, lifting her Elmo T-shirt to reveal a tiny, silver navel ring. "I've been such a good girl for so long. I can pierce my navel and look like a bad girl, but without the hassle of actually being bad."

If body piercing creates an identity crisis, there's one role about which Bertinelli is perfectly clear—that of "consummate suburban mom," as she calls it, to her 5-year-old son. He's named Wolfgang—after Amadeus Mozart, the favorite composer of her husband of 16 years, rock-guitar giant Eddie Van Halen, 42. "With Valerie family is the most important thing," says Frasier costar Jane Leeves, who, along with Murphy Brown's Faith Ford, is one of her closest friends.

Bertinelli was miserable when she couldn't be home for Wolfie's first day of kindergarten last September. She was in Park City, Utah, on a two-month shoot for the miniseries Night Sins, a thriller, based on the Tami Hoag bestseller about the abduction of a small boy, that's airing on CBS this week. She flew back to L.A. whenever she could and called Van Halen three times a day. "She'd want me to tell her everything Wolfie had done," he says. "I was always on the phone."

Bertinelli got back home in time to give Wolfie the Christmas stocking she'd spent nearly a year needlepointing. Says the actress: "I'd rather spend time with him than anything else."

Life can get busy for this star of more than 15 TV movies, three miniseries and three series. CBS wants her to develop a show, perhaps one based on Megan O'Malley, Night Sins' bright, edgy investigator. But she's skittish about prime time after the failure of 1990's Sydney and 1993's Café Americain.

For the past few months, Bertinelli has been carpooling Wolfie and his pals to and from school, attending PTA meetings with her husband (who drove when she was off in Park City) and helping out in the classroom. "Every morning, a mother stays from 8:30 to 10 and works at the educational centers in the room," she explains. "I'm always getting stuck on the science center, and I have no idea what I'm talking about."

Bertinelli is self-conscious about skipping college in pursuit of young stardom. "I've always felt behind everyone else," she says. The daughter of Andrew Bertinelli, a former GM executive, and his wife, Nancy, a travel agent, Valerie was born in Wilmington, Del. She began acting in commercials at age 11. One Day at a Time, in which she and MacKenzie Phillips played the daughters of a divorcée portrayed by Bonnie Franklin, made her famous at 15.

Now, two decades later, Bertinelli is gazing up at shelves of leather-bound classics—"The 100 Greatest Books Ever Written," she says. She hasn't cracked a single spine. Instead she's reading a self-help book. "I'm always trying to better myself," says Bertinelli. "The truth is, I'm just this scared bundle of mush."

Scrutiny of her once-wobbly relationship with Van Halen, whom she met backstage in 1980 after one of his performances, hasn't helped. "We love each other," Bertinelli says, "and the hard times we've been through aren't nearly as hard as the tabloids would have you believe." Still, she adds, "he'd be off doing his music thing, I'd be off doing my television thing. We never had the ability to sit and talk."

Bertinelli suffered a miscarriage in 1986. Five years later, Wolfie arrived. "When we walked into the house with him on that first day," she says, "I remember sitting with him on the couch and saying, 'Okay, now what?' "

Counseling, for one. She and Van Halen have been seeing the same therapist separately (and, less frequently, together) for about four years. "Without that," says Bertinelli, "I don't know if we'd be together." Counseling was crucial in getting Van Halen to deal with his much-publicized drinking problem. As the now-sober musician puts it, "When your young boy looks at you and says, 'What's wrong, Dad?' it's time to change."

These days they lead "as normal a life as possible," says Van Halen, who is working on a new album with his band. The couple relax at their main home, where Van Halen has a recording studio 25 yards up the hill, or at their beach house in Malibu. While Wolfie is at school, his mom will go to the gym or perhaps pick up groceries. Tonight Van Halen will be in his studio. Wolfie and his mom will go out for sushi. "It's fun," says Bertinelli.

Of course she is still recognized everywhere, which baffles Wolfie. On a trip to New York City recently, Bertinelli says, "he would say, 'Why must they always ask for your autograph?' " But Bertinelli knows her public. "I think my whole career is based on people who say they were told they looked like me while they were growing up," she says. "And you know what? They all really do look like me."

TOM GLIATTO
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles

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