September 30, 2002 12:00 PM

When Jane Leeves gets her groove on, you know it’s love. In 1995 Leeves met Paramount executive Marshall Coben at a Christmas party. Soon after, a longtime friend, actress Faith Ford, caught the Frasier star at home, red-faced and panting. “I said, ‘Were you dancing?'” recalls Ford. “Jane’s thing when she’s really in love is to put on music and dance. First there’s ‘the feeling,’ then there’s the dancing.”

And then there’s the wedding. “I actually told him a couple of weeks into dating that I was going to marry him,” notes Leeves, 41, “and he said, ‘Stop it! I’m the one who’s supposed to surprise you!'” Says Coben, 40: “I wanted to try on that traditional role, but she was so far ahead of me in being willing to just talk about things.” One year later, the pair said “I do” near the actress’s hometown of East Grinstead, England. Upon returning to Los Angeles, says Leeves, “I felt, well, that’s taken care of; I can get on with my life!”

Now the same can finally be said for Daphne Moon, Leeves’s alter ego on NBC’s Frasier. After nine seasons of teases, close calls and more repressed emotions than a Freudian textbook, Daphne at last gets her man when she and psychiatrist Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce) tie the knot on the series’s Sept. 24 season premiere. “Before we did it, I told David, ‘My heart is thumping!'” says Leeves. “He said, ‘Mine too!'” Adds Hyde Price: “We felt like we were realy getting married.”

If Frasier fans were growing impatient with the long-delayed nuptials, there was a time when Leeves—especially in her real-life single days—could relate. “I remember her saying, ‘Am I ever going to have a house? Am I ever going to have a family?'” says Ford, who first met Leeves in an ’85 acting class and later costarred with her on CBS’s Murphy Brown. “I’d say, ‘You’re going to have it all.'”

These days, Leeves feels as though she does. Since marrying Coben and welcoming their first child, 1½-year-old Isabella, “all of a sudden it’s like nothing can hurt you,” says Leeves. “You have the most wonderful thing in the world, so you are willing to take on more challenges.” This summer, that meant starring as the drug-addled Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway. “I would have been too chicken to take on a part like that before I had Isabella,” she says. “But the joy of belting out Cabaret all night—you just want to pinch yourself.”

It’s not the first time Leeves has marveled at her good fortune. Since arriving in the U.S. in 1985 with just $1,000, she has gone from starving artist—”She would make a baked potato in the morning and eat half at noon and the other half in the evening,” says Ford—to highly paid sitcom star with homes in Los Angeles and Malibu. But it is motherhood that has proved the biggest change. “She has a serenity now that she didn’t have before,” says Ford. “It’s a light within her.” Twice a week, Isabella accompanies her mom to the Frasier set, where the cast and crew “try to teach her to say silly things like ‘Mommy’s a nutter!'” says Leeves. Notes good friend and Frasier costar Peri Gilpin: “Mothering is completely second nature to Jane.”

Acting too. The second of four children born to Colin, an engineer, and Ruth, a nurse, Leeves knew she wanted to perform by age 5. Growing up in East Grinstead, she attended an all-girls ballet school until an ankle injury got in the way. (Siblings Alison and Richard still live in England; sister Katie lives nearby in L.A.) At 18 she moved to London and landed a role on comedian Benny Hill’s variety show. Next stop: Hollywood. “When Jane came over here, she had a suitcase and a couple of changes of clothes,” recalls Ford.

It wasn’t long, however, before her role as wacky secretary Audrey on Murphy Brown and a memorable turn as “the virgin” on Seinfeld got Leeves noticed—and helped her win the role of Daphne. “She’s natural and unaffected, and she possesses terrific instincts,” says Frasier star Kelsey Grammer. After nine years of working together, the cast is so tightly knit that Leeves, Coben and Hyde Pierce often socialize together. “We’ll be sitting down having dinner one night, all of us, and the next day I am kissing David on-set!” says Leeves, adding, “It doesn’t seem strange in any way.” Just as natural was having Gilpin accompany Leeves to the hospital when she delivered Isabella via C-section. “I have pictures of Peri and myself with that shower cap they put on you and everyone playing cards on my belly!” says Leeves. “It really helped to keep me calm.”

Looking ahead, says Leeves, “I’d love more kids.” Career-wise, “I’d like to play edgier,” she says, citing her role in Cabaret. “There’s a scene at the beginning of the show where I sniff a line of cocaine, and you could hear the audience gasping, ‘That’s Daphne! Sniffing coke!'” she recalls. “But by the end, they are with you.” The end of Frasier—which could come as soon as the season after next—will be harder to handle. “I know there is no way to be prepared for it,” says Leeves. “It’s such a happy place. I don’t know what I did to deserve it.”

Michelle Tauber

Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles

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