Playing by Ear, Nancy Stafford Finds the Key to TV's 'Matlock'

How did Nancy Stafford win the second-billed role on NBC’s top-rated Matlock? Easy. She went to a hotel room with the show’s star, Andy Griffith, sat in his lap and blew in his ear. But don’t assume that Stafford is a stop-at-nothing hussy. The flirtation was in the script. In an episode on last season’s Matlock, she played a prostitute who attempted to seduce (albeit unsuccessfully) the aboveboard attorney played by Griffith. This season, when the producers were casting the role of a woman in Matlock’s law firm, they remembered—among other things—the way Stafford had looked in her slinky teddy, and they drew up a contract forthwith.

And why not? Stafford, 33, isn’t just another face in the crowd. The 5’9″, 130-lb. former Miss Florida is a porcelain-skinned honey blonde with china-doll eyes, floor-to-ceiling legs and an incandescent smile that could light up a ballroom in a blackout. With qualifications on that order, she’s made wicked roles her forte. Stafford has played a wily chiseler on Magnum, P.I., a jet-setty bitch on The Doctors and a tough-nosed St. Elsewhere administrator who shared a shower scene with Mark Harmon. “I love being the bad guy,” says Stafford. “I love dealing with those intense emotions.”

Her acting proclivities, be assured, make up for what she doesn’t do in real life. Color her personality in good-sport, girl-next-door hues. More naïf than airhead, Stafford is an unaffected, clean-living, devout Christian who worries about being “boring” and is excessively given to such sugary expressions as “precious” and “blessed.” Not for nothing was she nicknamed Super Virgin in high school.

She grew up in Wilton Manors, Fla., a Fort Lauderdale suburb, where her brother, Tracey Stafford, 39, is now the Mayor. “I was a gangly, klutzy, studious girl,” says Nancy, “who was respected by the teachers and not at all popular with the other kids.” She was so “shy and sheltered” that her mother, Marcia, a six-term city council member, and her father, Leslie, a credit manager for the Hava Tampa cigar company, had to force her to go away to college. Earning a B.A. in journalism at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Stafford returned home, where her family and neighbors—”with a lot of coaxing”—persuaded her to enter a local beauty contest. She took the Miss Fort Lauderdale and Miss Florida titles in 1976 and, after finishing “in the bottom 40” in the Miss America Pageant, went to work for a Fort Lauderdale public relations firm.

If it weren’t for a 1979 strike by the Screen Actors Guild, Stafford would never have become an actress. Desperate for talent, a Florida ad agency asked her to read for five commercials. She got them all—probably, she says, “because I was the only one who was nonunion and could walk and talk at the same time.” After socking away $60,000 in modeling fees, Stafford headed for New York, joined the Eileen Ford stable, studied acting and by 1982 was appearing on soaps like The Doctors. A quick study. By 1983 Stafford was in L.A. pursuing and landing those nefarious TV roles.

She wasn’t alone during all that time. Stafford says she has always had “wonderful, loving, caring men in my life,” starting with a college romance with “a very poetic, very spiritual graduate student.” Her current steady is cut from the same cloth. Larry Myers, 41, is a musician (he played mandolin on Bob Dylan’s 1986 Knocked Out Loaded LP) and a pastor at the Lunada Bay Christian Fellowship church in Palos Verdes. Theirs is a decidedly non-live-in arrangement. Stafford resides in a triplex condo at an L.A. marina. Myers docks his houseboat at another marina five minutes away. Their relationship began eight months ago with a spiritual discussion in the gym they both frequent. Stafford was riding a Lifecycle and reading a Christian book. “I just saw that she was beautiful,” says Myers. “It was almost more than one could hope for to find out that we were compatible in our faith.”

Compared with Stafford’s previous roles, her new Matlock character—earnest, straitlaced attorney Michelle Thomas—is obviously closer to Nancy’s true self. Still, while Thomas occasionally brings a blush to Matlock’s face with her wide-eyed admiration of his legal prowess, there will be no hanky-panky between them. That’s fine with Stafford, but given their memories of last season’s steamy hotel scene, the crew has mixed feelings. Says Stafford: “They keep telling me, ‘Your wardrobe is nice, Nancy, but Where’s the teddy?’ ”

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