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Chary of Wedlock, Mel Harris and Cotter Smith Dragged Each Other, Kicking and Screaming, into Happiness

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You might think that after three seasons of defining the role of yuppie wife and mom Hope Steadman on ABC’s thirtysomething, actress Mel Harris would have OD’d on the joys of domesticity. And, until recently, you would have been right. “I didn’t want a relationship or anything even remotely similar to the life I have now,” says Harris, whose marriage to photographer David Hume Kennedy ended two years ago. “But take a look around and see how much I knew.”

Not much, apparently. You want breast-feeding? As Harris speaks, 4-week-old Madeline is on her second go-round of the morning, Car pools? Six-year-old Byron, Mel’s son by Kennerly, is off to kindergarten. Dogs? Wheatie, a year-old golden Lab, and Mulligan, a shaggy 12-year-old Irish setter, are breakfasting in the kitchen. Remodeling? A construction worker is jackhammering on the patio. A new husband? Yup, Harris has one of those, too. “This is home,” says the gentleman in question, actor Cotter Smith, 40, who plays attorney Eugene Rogan on ABC’s Equal Justice. “This is what we call paradise.”

It’s made all the more enjoyable by its unlikeliness. First of all, there was the problem of timing. When the two met in 1987, on the set of the slash ‘n’ scream B-flick Cameron’s Closet, both were involved in other relationships. “Still, we had one thing in common,” says Smith. “Both of us were actors who had vowed never to do a horror movie, and there we were doing just that. So we became friends.”

When Smith bumped into Harris at an audition several months later, the plot thickened. But not much. “Both of our relationships had fallen apart, so we had a lot to talk about,” says Harris. Friendly dinners turned slowly, but unmistakably, into actual dates. And that, of course, spelled trouble. The stumbling block, familiar to many thirtysomething singles, was that both Smith and Harris regarded themselves as hard-bitten veterans suffering from Post-Romantic Stress Disorder. Hard-won experience had made each shy of Big Commitments.

“I think both of us had gotten to a point in our lives where neither of us was looking for something permanent,” says Smith, whose first marriage, to Christane Egoof, ended in 1980 after eight years. “Early on, Mel made it clear to me that I was a nice guy, but I shouldn’t get any ideas. She wasn’t interested in A) a relationship, B) marriage and C) having any more children. It just wouldn’t happen. She made that very, very clear. So I said fine, and we just kept seeing each other.”

Gradually, Smith says, he realized that “this was something I wanted to pursue more seriously.” After he began sharing her Hollywood Hills home in 1988, Smith launched a campaign aimed at chipping away Mel’s resistance to marriage. But it was a third party who eventually changed her mind. “A friend told me that regardless of past relationships, I was crazy to put those limitations on future relationships—especially with Cotter, who was great,” says Harris, who had had another unsuccessful marriage before Kennedy. During a Valentine’s weekend drive up California’s Interstate 5, she related that conversation to Smith.

“I was taking in this concept of not letting your past influence your future, and all of a sudden I realized Mel was changing her mind,” Smith remembers. He proposed later that weekend, and she accepted. Then they popped the question to Harris’s son, Byron. “We told Byron that Cotter had asked me to marry him, that I’d said yes, but that we really wanted to know what he thought of it,” Harris remembers. “There was this very long silence, and both Cotter and I were thinking, ‘Oh, my God; but then Byron smiled and said, ‘That’d be great, Mom.’ ”

With the front of their house shielded from paparazzi and neighborhood onlookers by a gigantic tent, Harris and Smith were married before 150 family members and friends, including thirtysomething cast members Ken Olin and Polly Draper as well as Smith’s Soldier’s Story co-star Denzel Washington.

And after 18 months, the honeymoon is still not over. “Considering the kind of bachelor I was, I never thought of such a radical change,” says Smith. “But here I am, spending every day at home with the kids. I really like being married.”

Marriage also appears to have had a positive influence on their careers. Harris continues to earn good reviews for her portrayal of Hope in thirtysomething, and she spent last summer on back-to-back TV movie projects. Smith has gone from low-paying stage roles to the more lucrative and well-received Equal Justice. “I realized that it might not be a bad thing for me as a human being to find a series that would keep me near home,” he says. “A good series wouldn’t hurt my career either.”

And for Smith, a Washington, D.C., native whose father, John Lewis Smith, recently retired as a federal judge, the role also offered a chance to soothe some ruffled family feathers. “It lets me play the lawyer I was always supposed to be,” he says. “My dad is very happy.”

Ironically, each having a series (thirtysomething will definitely be back in the fall, while Smith is awaiting word on Equal Justice) has provided them with more time together. “We’re both in large-cast, ensemble shows, so we don’t always work every day,” says Harris. And while Harris, at least for now, is the household’s bigger star, Smith says it hasn’t caused any difficulties in their marriage. “Some people just assume that I have a problem with her success,” he says. “But I’m proud of her, and I don’t know why anyone would think otherwise. I also think I’m secure about what I do. And besides, that’s not how we define ourselves.”

The biggest star in the family these days is newborn daughter Madeline Michael (named after his mother, Madeline, and her mother, Mary Michael). Her arrival April 3 befitted a two-star Hollywood home. “My water broke about 4:30 A.M.,” says Harris. “I waited a while to make sure before I woke Cotter, but I did call my sister in New Jersey who was planning on being in L.A. for the birth.” About 5 A.M. she woke her husband and asked, “How’s April 3 sound for a birthday?” Then she telephoned the studio, where she was due in at 6 A.M., and advised them to “go to plan B.” A few hours later, Harris was in labor at Los Angeles’s Cedars Sinai hospital. “It was an amazing experience,” says Smith. “And I was amazed at how calm I remained.”

“While your wife shouted obscenities,” Harris adds.

So far, the new arrival hasn’t brought any drastic changes—just a little less sleep for her parents. “I wasn’t really familiar with 3 A.M. until now,” says Smith. “And I have great guilt about not being able to breast-feed.”

“There’s not much alternative,” Harris laughs. “But Cotter changes diapers like a pro.”

And while renovation on their three-bedroom Spanish-style home—purchased two years ago in July—has made their days noisier, their lives are still relatively quiet. “We aren’t exactly boring, but my friends and family back East imagine a Hollywood life that I know nothing about,” says Smith. Harris agrees: “We work out, play baseball in the front yard, go for walks and buy frozen yogurt,” says Harris. “Pretty exciting stuff.”

But they’re content. Very content, even. A while back, their doorbell broke. They haven’t gotten around to fixing it yet. “We aren’t going to,” says Harris. “Then we’d have to answer it.”

—Cynthia Sanz, Todd Gold in Los Angeles