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`GRACE UNDER FIRE’ FORGES BRETT BUTLER’S STAR QUALITIES

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Brett Butler has a right to feel stiffed because she and her hit sitcom "Grace Under Fire" weren't nominated for Emmys.

But, like her almost namesake, Butler talks as if, frankly, she doesn't give a damn. She has more important things to accomplish, like affecting human lives.Like a stand-up phoenix with a Southern drawl, Butler has risen from the ashes of her life, after getting burned nearly to the ground by domestic abuse and her own alcoholism.

Last season she made a meteoric move, from an emerging stand-up comedian to star of the No. 8-rated series on TV.

As a tart-tongued single working mom scrambling to get through each day, she struck a chord that resonated in 17 million American homes every Wednesday night.

"I didn't think it was unique until everybody made such a big deal out of it," she said of the black-humor approach her character takes in meeting the challenges of sitcom life head-on.

"I come from a family of people like that who - you just do it. Especially my mother and my father - well, he's dead now - but he had a real dark sense of humor. My sisters and I do. My friends. I mean, it's beyond being iconoclastic. It is a survival mode entirely."

There wasn't much humor when Butler was living the nightmare of her early life.

"I wasn't laughin' when I was gettin' knocked around the living room," she said, slipping into her frequent dropped-g mode.

"I wasn't laughin' when I was havin' blackouts drinkin'. But on the road back, (humor) did help, it helped a lot."

She chose to play Grace as a character with many of her own past troubles, but translating that personal pain to a weekly public revelation before millions was daunting at first.

"At the beginning of the season, I was self-conscious about being perceived as a poster child for either domestic violence or alcoholism," Butler said.

"But I was amused, sustained by and edified by entertainers as a child and as an adult. So if I, in turn, am presenting the hologram of this woman who's this sassy, self-healed chick, that's good."

The risk-taking show has earned critical praise, but it has been the individuals she's touched, not the mass media, that mean the most to Butler.

"I'm gettin' some letters from people that are just so textured and deeply felt and kind, sayin', `Thank you for what you're doing,"' she said.

"And they're men and women, old and young, black and white, gay and straight. They're prisoners. They're teachers. It's an amazing cross section of people who are seeing somethin' in the show and me."

Creating that special "somethin"' has been a struggle for Butler. There were reports last season that she made life difficult for some on her staff.

"If I'm doing something on stage and it's not right or true, it almost causes me physical pain," she said. "I work on it until it is (true), even if that means wrestling around with people who wrote it.

"Hence my somewhat deserved reputation as a fighter. But the only thing I ever fought about was words."

Well, maybe there were other things. As a woman and a newcomer to series television, she found she had to prove herself doubly, no matter what obvious talents she possessed. There were those, she said, who purposely made it difficult.

She's seriously unhappy that some of the best writing from series creator Chuck Lorre failed to reach the small screen.

"I said all year long that Chuck had the ability to write some of the best dialogue that's ever been put down between mother and children," she said. "But a lot of it managed not to find its way into anything I said (on the show) because it suited some people's agendas better to make me a real malcontent."

This year should be different, she said.

"I'm no longer this new kid they plucked from obscurity in order that they may bestow on me the chance of being a star," Butler said, her words enveloped in sarcasm.

"This year I think we have a more cohesive and friendly set of people in the room (where the episodes are created). We're all doing this together, not at each other."

Butler sees some shifts for the men in Grace's life in the coming season. She's not likely to find bliss with refinery chemist Ryan Sparks (William Fichtner), her romantic interest at the end of last season.

"It really feels good, and he's wonderful," Butler said, "but I don't think he will last in the show, because it's `Grace Under Fire,' not `Grace Lives Happily Ever After.' C'est la vie."

Coming into Grace's life, at least for a few episodes, will be her abusive ex-husband, who was much talked about but never seen last season.

"It's a casting nightmare," Butler said, "because a lot of good actors don't want to be this guy. Actually, I think it's a sensitive portrayal. He can't be this big cartoon kind of guy that I fought against (in absentia) last year."

For the time being, Butler can ignore the Emmy awards in September - except for her role as a presenter - and concentrate on her simple goal.

"I want the show to be better. That's all I want," she said."I'd like it to be a really good show, one that people will remember.

"And this is the corny part. I just say, `Just clear away anything in me that's obstructing getting better at this and that'll be fine.' "