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Growing up is a fact of life

‘80s TV star is enjoying stint as cop on ‘Division’

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LOS ANGELES, Calif. — The prop list on the day's call sheet for "The Division" reads "All cast: guns; badges; cell phones; coffee."

Yes, it's a cop show — but with a difference. The first five actors listed on that call sheet are all women: Bonnie Bedelia, Nancy McKeon, Tracey Needham, Lisa Vidal and Taraji Henson.

This Lifetime series about female police officers is billed as an ensemble drama, but the name with the most resonance for television fans is McKeon's.

From 1979 to '88, the actress portrayed street-wise Jo Polniaczek, a pleasingly rebellious presence among the schoolgirls of the NBC teen sitcom "The Facts of Life."

Now 35, McKeon is portraying another rough diamond, Inspector Jinny Exstead, whose alcohol abuse led to a dramatic intervention on last season's finale. When the second season begins Sunday, Jan. 6, Exstead has returned from rehab to the precinct run by Capt. Kate McCafferty (Bedelia).

"She's kind of getting reacquainted with the world without the haze, seeing where she fits in . . . it's a big difference for her, doing things without the aid of substances," McKeon says.

On a suburban Los Angeles soundstage, McKeon and Vidal, who plays her partner Inspector Magda Ramirez, rehearse a scene walking into a municipal building. McKeon, raven hair shining smooth, is wearing a sober pantsuit. Vidal, amber hair a tumble of curls, is brightly dressed in leather jacket, knee length skirt and long boots. They are chatting all the way.

Whether script dialogue or merely friendly conversation, McKeon says communication between them is easy.

"If you hang around you will see we yabber, yabber, yabber. They'll yell 'action' and we are still talking," McKeon says.

Vidal kids McKeon about knowing her as Jo.

"I remind her all the time — just in a very sweet way — because I loved her, because who didn't love Nancy McKeon as Jo," Vidal says, laughing. "I told her I've got to come clean about something: 'I can't believe I'm working with you because I grew up watching you on television.' "

McKeon prefers to distance herself from that legacy.

She didn't join the rest of the cast in "The Facts of Life Reunion," an ABC movie that aired in November. The New York-born actress was a child model and actress before the series. Since then, she has remained busy in front of and behind the camera, although with limited success.

Before "The Division," CBS gave her a couple of chances at another regular series. "Can't Hurry Love," a sitcom which she also produced, briefly aired in 1995. "Style and Substance," which teamed her with Jean Smart, lasted only a few episodes in 1998.

"I never had a plan. I started when I was 2 years old," says McKeon. "I've been blessed to be a working actor my whole life and transitioned from different age to different age."

McKeon doesn't rush her answer to any question. Her attitude is polite but reflects caution — perhaps a result of those days when teen magazines fed on every aspect of her life. But she warms up to tell a cute tale about when she was a tot appearing in a fashion show. She was dressed as a cowgirl complete with cap guns to fire. Waiting her turn to go on she was thirsty, so she grabbed a drink that looked like juice.

"It was a screwdriver and a few sips later I was looped and stumbling down the aisle with my cap guns. I think I created a festive opening to the show," she says, laughing.

On "The Division" the guns still fire blanks, but bigger and louder.

McKeon, a devotee of martial arts, says firing a gun is "not my favorite thing in the world." She hadn't practiced for a while when the new season started and caught herself "firing with my eyes closed . . . being a sissy girl. I realized that wasn't going to work!"

In the show the women try to balance the tough side of their work with the needs of their personal lives. McKeon did some research, traveling on night patrol with a couple of detectives.