March 18, 2002 12:00 PM

Onscreen Patrick Swayze was teaching Jennifer Grey how to mambo and merengue in the 1987 hit Dirty Dancing. But on the set he was teaching costar Jane Brucker more practical lessons. The day before she had to film the movie’s talent-show finale, Brucker—who played Lisa Houseman, the snooty older sister to Grey’s Baby—got an 8-in. burn on her right arm, when she brushed up against the tailpipe of a car. “It was very painful,” recalls Brucker. But Swayze came to her rescue, helping her dress the wound. “Patrick knew just what to do,” she says. “He was such a rugged, stuntmanish kind of guy.”

The burn healed, but ultimately Brucker’s acting career didn’t fare as well. Though she won a few post-Dancing film roles, a move into television—with a part on the 1989 CBS sitcom Doctor, Doctor—ended when she became pregnant with daughter Sally. “I could have not gotten pregnant and done the show,” says Brucker, 43, who had previously had two miscarriages while married to her first husband, comedian Brian O’Connor. “But the show would have ended and I wouldn’t have had Sally. She’s a longer run.”

These days Brucker calls herself a “stay-at-home actress,” who picks up Sally, now 12, from the school bus each day. She also throws elaborate dinner parties for friends in the spacious, 1928 Spanish-revival loft in L.A. she shares with her new husband of five months, photographer Raul Vega, 48. “It’s completely worth it,” she says. “I can find happiness being a mother without acting, but I couldn’t find happiness acting without being a mother.” Though she still auditions occasionally, “I try not to take acting too seriously,” she says.

That wasn’t always the case. The daughter of classical pianist and composer Howard (who died in 1978) and painter Claire, 75, Brucker and her brother Paul, now 46 and a journalist, began acting in community center plays near her Falls Church, Va., home when she was just 8. “Acting was the only thing I was ever encouraged to do,” she says. She studied theater at the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1976 but dropped out after a year when her dad became ill. She headed to New York City and found stage work with the First Amendment, an improv group featuring Bruce Willis. “She always looked to me like Ava Gardner and talked like Dorothy Parker,” says pal John Goodman, who worked with her on a radio show. “She’s got an incredible wit.”

Brucker also caught the attention of O’Connor, now 49, then appearing with a competing troupe. After dating for two years, they married in 1986 and settled in Manhattan.

That same year, Brucker won her first major film role, in Dancing, after improvising as a spoiled teenager in the audition. While Grey and Swayze spent much of the shoot rehearsing their dance scenes, Brucker bonded with movie parents Jerry Orbach and Kelly Bishop. Brucker, Orbach recalls, was popular with the cast and crew—and nothing like her dopey screen persona. “But she played it so well,” he says, “people got her confused with the character.” Between scenes she busied herself cowriting the nonsense hula song she performed in the film. “She is great fun,” says coauthor and choreographer Kenny Ortega. “We had each other in stitches.”

A few years later, as Brucker’s career sputtered, so did her personal life. She and O’Connor, then a VH1 host, drifted apart and divorced in ’93. With Sally, then 3, in tow, Brucker moved to L.A. In 1996 she met Vega through a friend. “He kills me,” she says. “I’m loud and goofy and he’s reserved and goofy.”

Now, when not busy in her role as mom, Brucker dabbles in screenwriting and volunteers with Santa Monica’s Virginia Avenue Project, performing plays written by at-risk kids. “Their experiences can be turned into something besides a reason to misbehave,” she says. Most of those kids aren’t aware of Brucker’s past brush with fame, but Sally is getting the idea. “I went to camp, and they’re like, ‘Wow! Your mom’s in Dirty Dancing?’ They were flipping out,” she says. “It’s so cool.”

Susan Horsburgh

Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles

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