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Phobic No More

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WHEN HE WANTS TO, JOHN PANKOW knows exactly how to tease Leila Kenzle, his castmate on Mad About You. “Leila’s a little bit of a perfectionist,” Pankow says. “She’s very concerned that she not mess up her lines, even though she blows lines a lot less than any of us.” So the impish Pankow, who plays Paul Reiser’s impish cousin Ira on the hit NBC sitcom, loves trying to trip up Kenzle when she’s ready to go on as Fran Devanow, Helen Hunt’s brassy best friend. “When we’re standing in the wings,” says Pankow, “and Leila’s got the first line, sometimes I’ll go: ‘Oh, my God! There’s the cue!’ She jumps out of her skin. She always has a good laugh,” adds Pankow, “after her heart stops racing.”

Kenzle, 35, relaxing at the art deco home in the Hollywood Hills that she shares with her husband, acting coach Neil Monaco, 35, readily admits, “I don’t want to ever screw up.” And though her compulsion to get even the smallest details of her performance right is now cause for laughter on the set, what Kenzle calls “my methodical perfect side” nearly derailed her acting career when she suffered a bout of agoraphobia in college.

It happened during her sophomore year as a drama major at Rutgers University, when Kenzle moved away from home for the first time. “I was always perky and happy,” she says, describing her childhood in Rutherford, N.J., about 40 miles from the Rutgers campus. Her father, Kurt, an electrical-tape salesman, would entertain Kenzle and her two sisters with fantastic stories, she recalls, and her mother, Lee, 64, an antiques dealer, “was one of my best friends,” she says. After growing up in this cosseted environment, Kenzle was unprepared for the pressures of drama school. “I wasn’t mature enough. I was frightened of everything,” she says. She dropped out of college after a semester, returned home—and spent most of the next eight months on a couch in the den watching TV. The thought of venturing almost anywhere else, she says, would provoke panic attacks that took the form of severe stomachaches. Her family was baffled. “We thought it was just Leila’s theatrics,” says her older sister Marion Gonzales, now 37 and an environmental chemist. “We never could see that it was really a fear.”

On her own, Kenzle finally sought out a therapist. Their first session, not surprisingly, was a house call. The therapist diagnosed her problem as agoraphobia—a fear of open or public places—and after only two weeks of therapy, Kenzle learned how to curb the panic attacks through positive thinking. “All you do” she says, “is talk to yourself and say, ‘You didn’t die the last time [you left home]. You can do this.’ ”

Her agoraphobia under control, she returned to Rutgers in the fall of 1981, where she discovered, in plays like Two for the Seesaw, that she had a knack for comedy. “Once I became funny,” she says, “there was no stopping me.” She graduated in 1984, and she won her first major part three years later playing a stripper in the off-Broadway audience-participation comedy Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. When Tony n’ Tina moved to Los Angeles in 1989, so did Kenzle.

There, she was cast in five sitcom pilots, all of which bombed. But Mad About You coexecutive producer Danny Jacobson remembered Kenzle from her audition for CBS’s short-lived Good Advice and tried her out in 1991 as Fran. “After the reading, there was barely a discussion,” he says. “She’s sexy and fun to write for. We liked Leila so much, we made Fran more likable.” For which Kenzle is grateful. “I’m not really as neurotic as Fran is,” she says. “But I do get as excited about things as she does.”

Like her spouse, for instance. “I could spend 48 hours a day with Neil,” she says. He feels the same. “Saying that she’s my best friend,” says Monaco, “says it all.” Friends were all they were as castmates in Tony n’ Tina. But one summer night in 1993, after a few hours spent griping about their unhappy past relationships, the two became, as Kenzle delicately puts it, “intimate.” A year later they had a small but memorable wedding—just them and a justice of the peace, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Kenzle says that to this day, she is sometimes skittish of new social situations—though never auditions (“I can lose myself in a part,” she explains). But by talking herself out of her fears, and sometimes relying on her gregarious husband for support, she is now more able to mix and mingle. In 1993, despite a queasy stomach, she managed to sit through her first Emmy ceremonies. “It used to be that my methodical perfect side wouldn’t let me say I wasn’t ready, so I had to show up and be perfect, and that made me completely withdraw,” she says. “Now I’m much more careful. I only do what I’m ready to do.”