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TV viewers are seeing more of Mel

Mel Harris has traded in Hope's permanent case of the mopes for a wide range of challenging roles.

The ex-thirtysomething ensemble player stars in two TV miniseries this month, is currently in Vancouver making a CBS movie, Child of Rage, and plans to act opposite her husband, Cotter Smith (Equal Justice), in the off-Broadway murder mystery Empty Hearts, opening in May.

Two weeks ago, Harris starred as a pregnant U.S. attorney with marital problems in ABC's The Burden of Proof. Monday and Tuesday nights Harris stars as a CIA agent alongside Corbin Bernsen (L.A. Law) in NBC's Grass Roots, airing locally from 9-11 on WFLA-Ch. 8.

"I don't know if that's a good distinction or not," Harris says in a telephone interview about her starring in two miniseries in one month. "It might be too much of me at one time. But then you never know when networks are going to schedule these projects."

In any event, Harris sounds truly glad to be out of Michael and Hope Steadman's Philly kitchen. That's where most of her angst-driven thirtysomething scenes seemed to end up, since her character was fairly housebound with two kids.

"Hope was a sort of interesting stay-at-home-mom," she says. "In any event, Hope gave a nice balance to the rest of the cast, because she was in a different loop. And it was fantastic to work with the likes of Ken (Olin) and Patty (Wettig) and Ed (co-creator and co-executive producer Edward Zwick)."

Harris, 35, has two children _ Bryon, 7, from her first marriage to former Gerald Ford White House photographer David Hume Kennerly; and Madeline, 2, from her union with Smith.

She says she misses the gang from the Yuppie serial, but "life moves on." Harris also indicates that hope is on the wane for a thirtysomething TV movie reunion.

"Nobody ever got into the semantics of going back and tying up loose ends," she says. "There was talk of NBC picking up eight more episodes, but it was just that _ talk." Harris adds that she feels bad that the Emmy Award-winning program didn't have an opportunity to film a conclusion, "but once the actors scattered and the contracts were terminated, it would have been difficult."

She says she expected thirtysomething, which aired on ABC from September 1987 to May 1991, to run only a couple of years. "None of us dreamed the show would become a phenomenon. The fact that it became a part of our culture shocked all of us."

Coughing throughout the interview, Harris admitted she's a bit worn out from her recent spurt of work, coupled with her own active home life.

She adds that she knows she'll experience great guilt, but she isn't taking her family with her to Canada for the five-week shoot of the CBS project.

Harris, who's far more revealing about herself than the Princeton grad Hope ever was, lapses into down-to-Earth mom talk. She explains that transporting her family to New York for the upcoming play is headache enough.

"We couldn't do it if my sister didn't live in New Jersey," she explains. "We're going to stay with her, and my son will go to school with her kids."

Then a pinch of doubt enters her voice and she adds, "See, my son's father lives in California so it will be difficult. But we'll make the best of it."

Harris says she's pleased with both her miniseries roles because

"None of us dreamed the show would become a phenomenon."

_ Mel Harris, speaking of thirtysomething

they're about strong career women faced with vexing personal life choices.

In Grass Roots, her Kate Rule character finds her ethics compromised because her CIA job puts her on a Senate investigation and she's enjoying a lusty affair with a top Senate aide, Will Lee (Bernsen).

Grass Roots smacks of Southern stereotypes, including the courtroom scenes where participants are seen sweating and fanning themselves (attention Yankee scriptwriters: AC has arrived in Dixie).

But Harris defends the story line by saying that "it tried to capture the slower pace and traditions in the South."

She's pleased that the ending of Grass Roots doesn't have Kate abandoning her career for the love of Will. "Kate puts her job on the line, but there are no exact answers. She's simply willing to go through a transition, if necessary."

Then with an exiting cough and a sigh, Harris adds before hanging up, "Just like in life."


Grass Roots

airs Monday and Tuesday, 9-11 p.m., WFLA-Ch. 8.