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Channing spreads wings in role of feisty first lady

Actress is glad to be a working actress, not a star

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NEW YORK — Bring up the fact that her sister is mayor of Palm Beach, Fla., and Stockard Channing brusquely interjects: "Why are you mentioning my sister?"

The mention is meant to serve as a preface to asking whether a real-life political animal would have any advice for a sister playing a political animal on television.

Firmly, though politely, she stiff-arms the question and offers only that there's nothing to say. Clearly, she wants the topic dropped.

In that one moment, the 57-year-old actress comes across as prickly and strong-willed as first lady Abigail Bartlet, whom she plays on NBC's Emmy-winning drama "The West Wing."

Otherwise, she's quite voluble and pleasant in talking about getting the role and seeing it gradually grow in the series' third season. (On Wednesday night, the first of this season's two-part premiere reruns at 7 and 8 p.m. on Ch. 5.)

"They sent me the script, and I was barely in it," Channing recalls about her initial appearance in the first season.

She says she was very disappointed with the size of the part — and frustrated because she had no idea what her character should be.

"I'm very used to either spending time figuring out what the character looks like, sounds like, how old she is, what her background is. . . . Or I'm presented with information of this sort by the writer or the director," she says.

She didn't have the time to do it on her own, and "West Wing" creator-writer Aaron Sorkin didn't supply the biographical back story.

"No, I don't work that way" was all he initially said.

She was working on another project in Toronto when "The West Wing" airlifted her to shoot her short scene.

"I literally got off this plane, went into wardrobe, went to the set. And there was Martin Sheen, who I had never met in my entire life in white tie and tails. I was in this evening dress . . . and I said: 'Hi. We've never met. But I think we've been married for about 50 million years."'

He laughed and said later: "I think we have daughters."

"We have daughters!?" she exclaimed.

"ACTION!" the director yelled.

The conversation ended, the scene began — and Channing and Martin Sheen's President Bartlet had great chemistry.

"That's just luck," Channing says.

She and Sorkin subsequently sat down to lunch and brainstormed her character's development, sussing out that she would be a doctor and she would have a "certain parity" with her husband.

From that point on, Channing felt: Now there's "a path in the snow," as her friend, playwright John Guare, used to say. "Anybody could follow it. Originally, it was just — snow."

She jokes that she could have shown up for that brief cameo and then the president's wife might have been talked about — but never seen — like Niles' wife Maris on "Frasier."

Channing has been seen and talked about lately, not just for "The West Wing." She received some good notices (and an American Film Institute nomination as best actress) for her performance in the art-house film "The Business of Strangers," which premiered in early December. (She also co-stars in the upcoming made-for-TV movie "The Matthew Shepard Story.")

Raised on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the daughter of a shipping executive, the Radcliffe College honors graduate chose to become an actress rather than a socialite.

After starring in "The Girl Most Likely To . . . " — one of ABC's then highest-rated movies of the week — her first big feature film came in 1975, starring opposite Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty in Mike Nichols' "The Fortune."

Soon, she had a clutch of rave reviews and one of those next-big-thing articles in Newsweek magazine.

But after starring as Rizzo in "Grease" — a role many people still fondly remember her for — she had two short-lived TV series and felt like the girl least likely to . . .

That feeling, in retrospect, is something Channing thinks was imposed on her.

"There was a time that I thought — I will not lie to you — something was wrong with me because I wasn't what somebody else expected me, quote-unquote, to be. That I was failing in some way. But that was a long time ago," she says, pointing to the late '70s, early '80s.

Married and divorced four times, Channing says she's now managed to define herself and is glad to be a steadily working actress, not a star.

"It has a lot to do with just growing up and growing older," she says.

By 1985, Channing earned a Tony for "A Day in the Life of Joe Egg" then won acclaim for her portrayal of Ouisa Kittredge, the rich woman snookered by a homosexual con man in Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation." (She received an Oscar nomination for reprising her role in the 1993 movie version.)

Now, Channing is enjoying success on television, getting two Emmy nominations for playing a character she loves.

"She's formidable without being off-putting in any way," Channing says of her Abigail. "She's honorable. She's also quite passionate. I think what people respond to is, they sense this tremendous love that she has for her husband — and he has for her."

And that love is getting her into trouble, as she is a target of an investigation for covering up the president's multiple sclerosis.

"Aaron has put me in a lot of hot water," she says. "I don't know if he knows how to get me out of it, but that's up to him."