June 07, 1999 12:00 PM

Susan Sullivan was on a date with Cary Grant in the ’60s when the dashing Hollywood icon stopped whispering sweet nothings long enough to offer a little career advice. “He said, ‘You don’t want to be an actress, they are all neurotic,’ ” says Sullivan. “I said, ‘Even Katharine Hepburn?’ He answered, ‘Even Katharine Hepburn.’ And then he said, “What you want is to be impregnated and have a baby.’ ”

Bringing up baby, however, was not on Sullivan’s agenda. Besides, she loved acting too much. Eventually she would appear in 1976’s miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man: Book II, followed by the 1980s nighttime soap Falcon Crest. As for the motherhood, says Sullivan, “I am like that cartoon where the woman has the bubble over her head, and in it she is thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I forgot to have children!’ ”

That’s okay. These days, Sullivan, 56, does plenty of mothering on the ABC sitcom Dharma & Greg. Onscreen, her blue-blooded Kitty Montgomery frets about son Greg (Thomas Gibson) and his hippie-dippy wife, Dharma (Jenna Elfman). Offscreen, Sullivan is “den mother” to the cast and crew, says Gibson, “making sure everybody is okay.”

When they’re not, Sullivan offers a sympathetic ear. “Sometimes I would just break down and start crying,” says Elfman, recalling overworked days and sleepless nights from the show and other projects. “She talked me through it and gave me love and understanding. She didn’t stop with me until I felt better.” Adds Dharma co-creator Chuck Lorre: “She has the ability to put people at ease, listen to their concerns and be their champion.”

Throw in a Ph. D. and you’ve got a bona fide shrink—much like her companion, Beverly Hills psychologist Connell Cowan, 60. A mutual friend introduced them 11 years ago as Sullivan faced a career slowdown after an eight-year run on Falcon Crest. “In my mid-40s, I suddenly didn’t have the work that I had had for 20 years, and I sort of had to reinvent myself,” she says. She felt lost, “but at the same time, I had the first real, deep, grown-up love of my life.”

The timing was impeccable. Sullivan had always been looking for the perfect man, but none met her expectations until Cowan, a twice-married father of two grown sons, taught her to love unconditionally. “Connell really opened my heart,” she says. “I trust him totally.”

He hints at a millennium wedding, even though both feel married. In their four-bedroom, adobe-style home off L.A.’s Mulholland Drive, Sullivan “feels safer and calmer in a neat, orderly environment,” Cowan says. He attributes her neatness bug to her childhood with a disorderly, alcoholic father. Advertising executive Brendan Sullivan “would inevitably get drunk at the big events—my senior play, for example—so I always felt let down,” Sullivan says. He also criticized her while praising the rest of the cast. “It was deadly for me that he would do that. I was never [good] enough.”

She turned to psychotherapy to overcome the hurt. “I now understand that my father’s malady was anxiety-driven,” says Sullivan. By the time he died of lung cancer in 1980, they had made peace.

There were also many pleasant days growing up on Long Island’s South Shore, with her mother, Helen, a retired piano service manager; big brother Brendan Jr.; and little sister Brigid. Sullivan performed in backyard plays, earned $30 a week teaching at Miss Rita’s Dancing School and, at age 18, padded her bra and applied for a job at New York City’s Playboy Club.

“I put on the silly outfit with the ears and the tail,” she admits. “I only worked weekends, and people treated you like a goddess. I was applying for a Fulbright Scholarship at the time”—she was attending nearby Hofstra University on an acting scholarship—”so I let everybody know it because I didn’t want everyone to think I was just a Playboy Bunny.”

The Fulbright folks passed, but Sullivan, after graduation, found work at the Cleveland Playhouse and PBS and in 1968 appeared with Dustin Hoffman in Jimmy Shine on Broadway. After several years on the soap opera Another World, she was encouraged by an agent to try Hollywood. Yet she felt “too old to go to California”—although she was only in her 30s.

Sullivan went anyway. Playing lawyer Maggie Porter on Rich Man brought her stardom, but she learned quickly that it could be fleeting. “I was leaving La Scala after having dinner with my agent, and the paparazzi were outside and they all rushed over to me asking questions,” she recalls. “Suddenly they all left because they were waiting for Suzanne Somers to come out.”

Her second lesson in fickleness began in the late ’80s with the aforementioned career lull. Despite a successful turn as Maggie Gioberti on Falcon Crest, job offers dwindled. “I was used to getting the parts,” she says. “I had gone from my 30s to my 40s in a safe cocoon, then suddenly I was out into the world where it is natural to get rejections.” Sullivan painted and continued her work for charities such as Save the Children, but found it difficult adjusting to the downtime. “Acting,” she says, “is my passion.”

The passion never died, and her patience paid off. After landing a small role as Cameron Diaz‘ mother in 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding, Sullivan read for the Kitty role in Dharma. “I knew I could do it, the audition was a snap,” she says. More than three decades later, she is still happily ignoring Cary Grant’s advice. “Work,” she says, “is what carried me through life.”

Larry Sutton

Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles

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