By Michelle Tauber
January 12, 2004 12:00 PM

She’s known as a terrific TV talk show guest, but Bonnie Hunt once ‘turned down the opportunity to sit on the other side of the desk. “I can’t even tell you how much money they offered me to take over Rosie O’Donnell‘s job,” says Hunt. So why’d she pass? “I said to the executives at the time, ‘You gotta know that if I see a movie and I don’t care for it, I am probably gonna talk to the actor about it. So I don’t think I am your girl.’ ”

It’s that plain-speaking persona that has made Hunt, 42, Hollywood’s go-to gal for the role of mom (her ABC sitcom Life with Bonnie, for which she just nabbed her second Golden Globe nomination), sister (’96’s Jerry Maguire) or wife (’99’s The Green Mile). In the new family comedy Cheaper by the Dozen, which made nearly $40 million over the Christmas holiday, Hunt gets to display her tart comic timing coparenting a super-size brood with Steve Martin. “Her improvisation chops are remarkable,” says Cheaper director Shawn Levy. She also proved her skills as a child wrangler. “Let’s say I needed some kids to be quiet,” recalls the director. “She’d make up a game: Who can be quiet the longest? The kids hung around Bonnie like a huge hula skirt.”

She’s so convincing as a harried mom that it seems surprising that she has no firsthand experience. “If I could snap my fingers, I would have six or seven kids,” says Hunt, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 15 years, investment banker John Murphy, 46. In reality, however, “you walk down the road and you might have plans, but like they say, ‘If you want to make God laugh, make plans,’ ” says the actress. “You just don’t know where your road is gonna go.”

Still, Hunt isn’t lacking in family. Born into a blue-collar Chicago house-hold, she was the sixth of seven children of Alice, 78, a homemaker, and Bob, an electrician who died of a heart attack at age 50. Hunt describes herself as “the quiet one. My brothers and sisters were funny and outgoing, and I was lucky enough to come out to Hollywood and cash in on all their personalities.”

Growing up, “my father always struggled to make ends meet,” says Hunt, who treasures memories of their TV time together: “I remember just how wonderful it was to see my dad watching Andy Griffith and for a moment in time just laughing so hard at Barney and Andy and Otis.”

It would be a while before Hunt pursued her own primetime dreams. Instead, she spent several years working as an oncology nurse in Chicago. But her keen wit drew her toward comedy, and she helped found a Chicago improv group before joining the famed Second City comedy troupe. In 1987 she landed a role in Rain Man opposite Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. Other TV and film roles soon followed, including two failed sitcoms. “I have been canceled so many times that I really just live for each episode at a time,” she says of Life with Bonnie, which has earned critical praise. Despite her extensive behind-the-scenes responsibilities, Hunt—who made her directorial debut with ’00’s Return to Me starring David Duchovny and Minnie Driver—downplays the workload. “When people say, ‘How do you write and produce and act and direct on your show on a weekly basis?’…it is nothing in one day like the life of my mother having seven children,” she says. “It just doesn’t compare.”

When she isn’t working, Hunt is happy to play aunt to her 15 nieces and nephews and to get dirty in her L.A. garden. “Gardening is probably my favorite thing in the world,” she says. “It is intoxicating. I plant almost 2,000 tulips a year by myself, by hand.” She also enjoys being a homebody with her husband and their dogs Lacey and Buddy. Though her profession isn’t exactly typical for an investment banker’s wife, “my husband totally supports me,” she told PEOPLE in 2000. “He gets a kick out of what I do.”

And, one hopes, he shares his wife’s dry sense of humor. In the outtakes that roll at the end of Cheaper by the Dozen, Hunt’s hunky costar Tom Welling, 26—he plays her oldest son in the film—gives her a spontaneous smooch. “For like three weeks after that I was still thinking about it, because I couldn’t even believe that guy would want to kiss me,” says Hunt. “He is a very nice man. And a bobcat in the sack, I might add.”

Michelle Tauber. Sean Daly and Alexis Chiu in Los Angeles