March 26, 2001 12:00 PM

Even 15 years ago, Camryn Manheim had set herself a deadline. “She used to say, ‘I’m going to have a baby before I’m 40, and I don’t care if there’s a man in my life or not,’ ” recalls a friend, photographer Jana Marcus.

Manheim doesn’t kid around. On March 6, two days before her 40th birthday, the unmarried star of ABC’s The Practice and the outspoken author of the autobiographical Wake Up, I’m Fat! greeted her first child, a son, 9-lb. 2-oz. Milo Jacob. “She’s such a strong woman,” says obstetrician Sheryl Ross, who delivered the baby at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. Manheim, she says, breezed through 15 hours of epidural-eased labor and 30 minutes of pushing with “a big smile on her face the whole time. I put the baby on her chest, and tears were flowing, and the first thing she said was, ‘I can’t believe how easy this was!’ ”

Not surprisingly, “Camryn is the happiest I’ve ever seen her, and I’ve seen her at many happy moments,” says Jeffrey Brezovar, 39, a model and close friend of Manheim’s who was at the birth but declines to confirm or deny reports he is the baby’s father. “I really can’t answer that question,” he says. “I have an agreement not to speak.” But Brezovar, the former Aramis Man in cologne ads, speaks gushingly of Milo: “He’s the most spectacular baby, with a full head of brown hair and beautiful long eyelashes.”

Friends and family have pitched in to help the new mother, who took Milo home after an overnight hospital rest. Her mom, Sylvia, 75, and sister Lisa, 44, a mother of two, are helping out at Manheim’s five-bedroom Los Angeles home. Manheim is “doing just great,” says her father, Jerome, 77, a retired mathematics professor who lives with Sylvia in the L.A. area. “She has always had a natural affinity for babies—she just loves them.”

Milo will benefit from some elaborate preparations. “She has this incredible room for the baby,” says Marcus. “She had a muralist come in and paint a meadow scene all the way around, with blue skies and clouds up on the ceiling.” About 70 friends, including Calista Flockhart, Marlee Matlin and Brooke Shields, feted Manheim at a Feb. 4 baby shower thrown by actress Caroline Rhea. After a lesson from Hollywood knitting guru Edith Eig, each guest stitched a square for a patchwork blanket for Milo. “The best gift,” says actress Sharon Lawrence, “was this cool little bitty biker jacket for the baby.”

It must have thrilled his motorcycle-riding mama, who made an Off-Broadway splash in 1994 with a one-woman show (titled, like her book, Wake Up, I’m Fat!) detailing her struggles with weight. The 1999 Emmy winner isn’t the only Practice star to become a mother this season: Actress Kelli Williams had a daughter last month. Both actresses’ pregnancies became onscreen plotlines—in March 12’s crossover episode on the hospital drama Gideon’s Crossing, Manheim’s character battled life-threatening complications. With the all-important May sweeps episodes left to tape before summer hiatus, “we’re going to try to write her in just a little bit,” says Pamela Wisne, president of The Practice’s production company. Manheim “might miss an episode or two. We’re waiting to see how it’s going.”

Manheim, who says she will raise Milo solo, told few friends the identity of the father. “How people find each other is a mystery to me,” she told PEOPLE last year of her single romantic status. “Whether love or infatuation, that eludes me.” But single parenthood, she added, was a challenge she was ready for. “She said that one good thing about it was that she didn’t have to seek approval from her significant other about baby names,” says model-designer Emme, a pal. “She goes, ‘Well, the advantage that I have, Em, is that I don’t have to sit there and say, ‘Is that okay?’ ”

Samantha Miller

John Hannah, Julie Jordan, Elizabeth Leonard and Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles

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