By John Stark
April 15, 1985 12:00 PM

She emerges from the ocean dressed in a white string bikini that clings more snugly than an Italian sports car traversing the Alps. As the opening credits roll on Rob Reiner’s comedy The Sure Thing, Nicollette Sheridan, 21, lies down on the Malibu sand and slowly applies another layer of suntan lotion to her seriously bronzed body. The role doesn’t really ask her to do much else except pout. (And who says they aren’t writing great parts for women anymore?)

In the film Sheridan plays a perfect 10 who bedazzles a college student, but when the actress auditioned for Reiner she was wearing a loose-fitting white dress, which hid her figure. “I sheepishly informed her that I might need to see her in a bikini and would she mind testing that way?” Reiner recalls. “She looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘I don’t think you can handle it.’ I knew right then that she was right for the part.”

Although her only previous acting assignment was as the pampered, jet set model Taryn Blake in ABC-TV’s canceled Paper Dolls, she exudes the confidence of someone who’s really been around. “When people meet me for the first time they usually think I am a real snoot,” she says. “I say what I think, and many a time I’ve gotten into trouble because of it. I find it very difficult to lie.” Any similarity between the beach bunny in The Sure Thing and herself is purely physical. “I am not the type to solicit affection and crave it like she does,” says Sheridan.

This self-confidence stems not from her celestial body but from her unconventional upbringing. She was born near London to an actress named Sally Adams Sheridan, who gave birth to Nicollette at 16. When Nicollette was less than a year old her father left the family, and she’s never seen him since, nor does she want to. (He is in the British Air Force, stationed in Eastern Europe.) “He would be a stranger to me,” she says icily. In 1969, while still living in London, Nicollette got a new father figure, Telly Savalas. Although Mom never married the actor, they did have a child—Nicollette’s half brother, Nicholas. In 1973, when Savalas started Kojak, they all moved to Los Angeles. But the couple split in 1976 and in 1980 Nicollette’s mother, who now calls herself Sally Adams-Savalas, filed a $5 million palimony suit. Although the suit’s outcome wasn’t made public, she won custody of her son. But if Nicollette’s mother had a voodoo doll, Kojak would be in real trouble. “I think Telly must be very envious inside,” says Sally, “that Nicollette, the one he never accepted, should become the successful one—not any of his five children. She was always the one that wasn’t Papa’s daughter and he must be furious.” Savalas refuses to comment about Nicollette, but her feelings about Savalas aren’t exactly Father’s Day sentiments. “He left my life very abruptly and as far as I am concerned he’s out of my life for good.” As to rumors that Savalas has helped her career, she huffs: “Certainly not.”

Sheridan proved herself recalcitrant as an adolescent. She spent three of her high school years at Buckley, a private school near Los Angeles. “I was soooo bored,” she says. “I almost got kicked out. I was caught forging my mother’s signature on a note.” Not amused, Mom shipped her off to Millfield, a no-nonsense girl’s school outside London. She graduated in 1981.

In London the 5’7″ Sheridan turned to modeling for TV commercials and print work, which didn’t thrill her either. “All of my life I had been the type that didn’t wear makeup. And here I was sitting on the floor of a vast sound stage with people saying, ‘Nicollette dear, a little to the left.’ ” Humiliated by such treatment she modeled only when she wanted to. Even though Sheridan earned more than $100,000 in modeling fees last year, she balks at being called a model. “I’m not a model. I model. There is a difference.”

That’s the sort of philosophical distinction that is important in Malibu, where Sheridan lives. She rents a Pacific view condo, where her fiancé, Leif Garrett, 23, is temporarily residing. They’ve been together for the past five years, except for one year when they broke up. “Even when I wasn’t with Nicollette, I knew we would get back together,” Garrett says. “My reputation as a playboy was well-deserved, I guess. But until Nicollette, I hadn’t really found a woman who was my equal. She made me work for her love.” To prove it, he recently wrote her a poem—not exactly D.H. Lawrence, who is her favorite writer: “You are to me what water is to a flower/Like the sun breaking through on a rainy day/You are a ray of light in my life.” With a poet in the house, “I don’t have to look far for loving,” says Sheridan, who hasn’t set a date for the wedding.

Sheridan has been signed for ABC’s upcoming nighttime soap, Dark Mansions, which is supposed to be Dynasty meets Dark Shadows. But, like modeling, acting isn’t enough for her. “I want it all,” she says huskily. Is anything in her life a sure thing? “Oh, sure,” she says. “Leif and I are a sure thing. And short of that, I’m a sure thing.” With that kind of confidence, Sheridan may soon shed the string bikini.