April 25, 1988 12:00 PM

In 20 years in show business, actress Gail Strickland has appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies. She played Sally Field’s pal in Norma Rae and has portrayed assorted housewives, hookers, cops and crooks on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, Cagney & Lacey and Hill Street Blues. It’s the sort of résumé, she observes, that brings a predictable reaction from fans on the street. Says Strickland: “They say things like, ‘Are you in show business—or do I know you from Michigan?’ ”

It’s a question she may not hear much longer. Strickland, 41, will lose a good deal of her forgettability quotient this Wednesday night (April 20) when, as nurse practitioner Marilyn McGrath on the new ABC medical drama, Heartbeat, she reveals her love for another woman. In doing so, she’ll become the first regular lesbian character in prime time—a taboo she is surprised TV didn’t break years ago. “I don’t know why [they didn’t],” says Strickland. “God knows, they’ve tried to sensationalize everything else.”

Shock value, she says, was not her motive for taking the role. “It’s not often actors get to play parts that might make a difference. The fact that somewhere, somehow, someone’s perspective might be softened is important to me.” She is proud of the McGrath character and her own association with it. “Marilyn is a loving, warm professional who cares about her daughter and has been in a good relationship for four years,” says Strickland. “If that is how I’m stereotyped, then that’s fine with me. My only worry was that the network wouldn’t fulfill their part of the bargain. I’m sure they’ll get mail, and I’m afraid they’ll pull back when they get negative responses.” On-camera, physical intimacy between McGrath and her romantic partner, played by actress Gina Hecht, will be limited to eye contact and the occasional hug.

“People are scared of this subject,” agrees writer Sara Davidson, who created Heartbeat, which is set at a women’s medical center. “There are lots of misconceptions about gay women. We’re taking a big risk.” To diminish the impact, Marilyn was introduced as a character before her homosexuality was disclosed. “We wanted people to see her as a terrific person first,” says Davidson, “then find out she has a private life that at its core is no different from anyone else’s.”

That was a point Gail Strickland feared would be lost on her family. Raised a Baptist in Birmingham, Ala., one of five children of a tire shop owner and a housewife, she was accustomed to a Southern world she gently describes as “not very generous to other people. I didn’t look forward to feedback from the family.” When a nephew read about her role, then called her up to whisper, “Should I tell Grandma?” Gail says, “I thought, uh-oh, this is going to be a problem.”

As it turns out, she needn’t have worried. While preparing for her role, Strickland attended a nurse practitioners’ convention near L.A. Her mother, Theodosia, in California on a visit, tagged along. “I had not told my mother that my character is homosexual,” says Strickland, “and one of the nurses brought it up. Some of the group were furious, but my mom just looked up and said, ‘I don’t see what the problem is. Why should that matter?’ I was so proud of her!”

Strickland may have inherited her independence from Theodosia. In 1957, when Gail was 11, her father, Lynn, died of a heart attack. Theodosia took over his tire business and managed it successfully enough to put all five children through college. “My dad’s death was terrible for all of us,” Gail says, “but it pulled the family together.”

A tall, athletic kid, Strickland wore a size-12 dress at age 12. “I played football with my brothers,” she says, then refines the memory: “Often, I was the football.” That posed a problem as she entered her teens. “When boys started looking differently at girls,” she says, “I wasn’t one of the ones they looked differently at.” Struggling for attention, she wrote plays and performed them in front of friends. At Florida State University, she made her mark as a gymnast and clown. “I didn’t know what Broadway was,” she says, “but I knew it was my goal.”

She reached it in 1973, in Status Quo Vadis, which had a short run. Such films as The Drowning Pool, Norma Rae and Protocol followed, along with countless TV guest shots. Still, says Strickland, “before Heartbeat, had you ever heard of me? That’s frustrating.”

In addition to her family, Strickland does have at least one steady, sustaining fan: Neil Baker, 42, a Boston-based marketing consultant she met on a blind date seven years ago. Two weeks later he proposed. “I told him he was crazy,” says Strickland, who travels frequently for acting jobs. “I said that after 45 minutes he’d hate my life.” She was wrong; after years of cross-country courtship, they plan to marry in December, even if it means continuing to bounce between his Boston home and her rustic Hollywood Hills abode. They are already trying to have children. “I’m sorry Neil and I didn’t start a family years ago,” says Strickland. “It was foolish on my part.”

She has no such regrets about breaking a prime-time barrier. Although Strickland was originally approached to play a different Heartbeat character, she asked instead for the riskier role of McGrath. Years of experience, she suggests, have taught her that there is a type of part she does best. “I’m not the star,” says Strickland. “I’m the spark.”

—By Susan Toepfer, with David Hutchings in Los Angeles

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