June 24, 1996 12:00 PM

JERRY SEINFELD WAS DYING OF curiosity. He had just heard a rumor about Liz Sheridan, the spunky actress who plays his mom, Helen, on NBC’s Seinfeld, and he had to find out if it was true. “This was about three years ago,” recalls Sheridan, 67. “Jerry comes over and says, out of the blue, ‘So. You were a friend of James Dean, huh?’ ”

Actually, Sheridan had been more than a pal to the late screen idol. In 1952, while both were struggling in New York City—he as an actor, she as a dancer—they became lovers. Though their affair (detailed in Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean, a new biography by Donald Spoto) lasted only a year, Sheridan recalls it as “just kind of magical. It was the first love for both of us.”

Dean would go on to star in three films (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant) before dying at 24 in a car crash on a California highway on Sept. 30, 1955. Sheridan, who worked in Off-Broadway musicals for years, moved to L.A. in 1980 and became a fixture on TV (ALF, Melrose Place). Since 1960 she has lived with Dale Wales, 67, a jazz trumpeter turned writer and, since 1985, her spouse. The couple share a townhouse in Studio City, Calif.

But Sheridan’s romance with Dean still haunts her. Seinfeld, too, she says. “Every once in a while, he’ll say, ‘Got any good Dean stories?’ ” As a matter of fact, she does. There was the January night in 1952 when she and Dean first met. The effervescent Sheridan (nicknamed Dizzy since childhood) was then a 23-year-old fledgling dancer on the Milton Berle show who lived in the Rehearsal Club, a Manhattan women’s residence for performing artists.

Invited for dinner by a female acquaintance, Dean struck up a conversation with Sheridan. He was 20, a UCLA dropout who had landed bit parts in films before moving to New York City in 1951. There, he soon found work in live TV dramas like Kraft Television Theatre while rooming with friends and subsisting on shredded wheat and tapioca pudding. “He looked kind of lost,” recalls Sheridan. “But Jimmy wasn’t a rebel, and he had no cause. I think he was just shy.”

Dean, who hailed from Fairmount, Ind., the only child of a dental technician and his wife, quickly warmed to Sheridan, who had grown up in Larchmont, N.Y., the younger of two daughters of Frank Sheridan, a classical pianist, and Elizabeth Poole-Jones, a concert singer. She and Dean shared a fascination with bullfighting. (Among his prized possessions: a matador’s bloody cape, which he used as a blanket.) They began going out and soon were sharing an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Jobless, neither could keep up the rent. So in February, each found cheaper lodgings: Sheridan in an Eighth Avenue apartment, Dean at the Iroquois hotel. But they remained lovers. Earlier, Dean had revealed to her he’d slept with Rogers Brackett, a Manhattan ad exec he met in 1951. Sheridan believes that affair ended once she and Dean began theirs. “Jimmy didn’t come off as gay at all,” she says. “He came off as gentle and tender. He might have been bisexual, or he might have just played around.”

In September ’52, he and Sheridan began sharing an Upper West Side apartment with screenwriter William Bast and a female friend of Bast’s from UCLA, where Bast and Dean had been roommates. Dean could be standoffish, but Sheridan “kept him laughing and smiling and civilized,” says Bast.

He moved out on his friends in November so he could focus on his Broadway debut in See the Jaguar. The drama closed quickly, but Dean won raves as a teenage misfit. Sheridan barely saw him after that. “He was being hauled away into this career, and I couldn’t follow him,” she says. In December 1954, Dean turned up at a party Sheridan was attending. Earlier that year he’d filmed East of Eden and had an affair with actress Pier Angeli (The Silver Chalice). Around Sheridan he acted like a schoolboy. “I had this long pigtail down my back,” she says. “And he just held onto it all night long.”

It was the last time they would see each other. Sheridan was living in Puerto Rico when she heard about Dean’s fatal crash. “I was numb,” she says. “I didn’t believe it. I still don’t—I keep thinking he’s going to call.”

Recently, Sheridan got some happy news: she’ll be a regular on An American Family, a new UPN sitcom. But she still yearns for a series of her own. “I want to be accepted,” she says. “It’s not so much the applause. It’s just being respected for what you are.” She reflects a moment. “I think that’s what Jimmy was looking for, you know.”

MICHAEL A. LIPTON

LEAH FELDON-MITCHELL in Los Angeles

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