October 25, 1999 12:00 PM

Don’t get Sela Ward started on the subject of age discrimination in Hollywood. True, by the actress’s own admission, “at 43, I am happier than I’ve ever been in my life.” And with good reason. She’s contentedly wed to Howard Sherman, 44, a venture capitalist, and the doting mother of Austin, 5, and 16-month-old Anabella, with whom the couple share a four-bedroom Spanish-style home in Beverly Hills. And, unlike a lot of actresses her age, she’s starring in a hit fall series, ABC’s Once and Again, playing a sensuous single mom.

Yet despite her domestic and career bliss, Ward is sufficiently riled about ageism to have executive-produced a Lifetime documentary on the subject (Beauty and Aging in America, to air next year). “It’s not just Hollywood,” she says. “[It’s] the panic and fear that we [women] have that, God forbid, anyone [should] find out how old I am: ‘I’ll lose my job, I won’t find a man to love me.’ ”

Or play opposite a certain secret agent. In 1996, the year she turned 40, Ward hoped to join the historic bevy of 007 beauties (Ursula Andress, Jill St. John, Jane Seymour) chosen to star in a James Bond flick. After playing the sexy, if fleeting, part of Harrison Ford’s murdered wife in 1993’s The Fugitive, she thought she had a good shot at it. But she was turned down. Worse, the actress was dismayed to learn that the film’s director had reportedly said, “What we really want is Sela Ward 10 years ago.” Besides making her mad, the comment forced her, she says, to “take a realistic look at where I was on the time line in this business.”

Ward decided that her best years were still ahead of her, and now she’s glad she kept working. The role of Once and Again’s 40-year-old Lily Manning appeals to her as few other characters she has played. “I love that Lily’s a little neurotic, a little unsure, but very strong,” she says. Still, having worked marathon days on NBC’s Sisters (1991-96), Ward wasn’t sure she wanted to take on the grind of another series. “I’d leave before [then-infant] Austin woke up and come home after he was in bed. It was killing me,” she recalls. But when executive producers Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (thirtysomething) “promised me that I would see my children,” she acquiesced.

Still, despite relatively early quitting times, sleep is difficult for the busy mom, who has a housekeeper during the day but no live-in help except, of course, for husband Howard. “He is so amazing as a partner. He’s incredibly supportive,” she says. Even so, “Anabella gets up at least once a night,” Ward says, “and Austin might have to go to the bathroom, and I have to steer him in the right direction, because he sort of sleepwalks.” Then Ward has to bestir herself, often before 6 a.m., to go to work. “You see her in makeup, and she’s just as tired as she can be,” says costar Billy Campbell, who plays Lily’s lover, Rick Sammler. But then, he says, “she gets on the set, stiffens her backbone and goes through the entire day giving every ounce of what she has.”

Which is just what you’d expect from a true Southern belle. The oldest of four children of Granberry, an electrical engineer, and Annie, a homemaker, Ward grew up in Meridian, Miss., and attended the University of Alabama, where she became a Crimson Tide cheerleader. After graduating in 1977, she eventually moved to New York City (“It was exhilarating,” she says), where she modeled and did TV commercials—even losing her drawl for a Maybelline ad. Relocating to L.A. in 1983, Ward nabbed her first TV series, the short-lived Emerald Point, N.A.S., from which sprang a three-year relationship with her costar, Richard Dean Anderson (MacGyver). “He’s a sweetheart. I really do adore him,” she says. “If he had wanted to be married then, I probably would have.”

But he didn’t, and Ward focused on her fledgling film career. Garry Marshall, who directed her in 1986’s Nothing in Common, laughingly recalls how she prepared for a crying scene by going off in a corner—just as she’d seen costar Tom Hanks do. “We waited a minute,” says Marshall. “Then she came back and whispered in my ear, ‘What did [Tom] do in the corner?’ You gotta love her.” The neophyte learned quickly, though, and won an Emmy as Sisters’ alcoholic Teddy, who was married, for one season, to rising star George Clooney. “George is a cut-up and a clown,” she says. “He’d be telling one joke after another.”

After an engagement to Robocop’s Peter Weller ended in 1990 (their dual careers put pressure on the relationship, she says), Ward was ready for a different sort of guy. A year later, her nutritionist introduced her to Howard Sherman. Their attraction was mutual—and immediate. “She’s an extraordinarily bright, romantic and sexy woman,” says Sherman. The pair, who wed in 1992, still manage to slip away for romantic weekends. On vacations, the whole family goes off to their 280-acre ranch in Mississippi, not far from Ward’s hometown. There, she says, she can “go out in a canoe and just float.” Which is sort of how she feels about life in her 40s. “It’s a wonderful place to be,” says Ward. “I just feel ripe and juicy, like a piece of fruit that’s delicious.”

Sophfronia Scott Gregory

Michelle Caruso in Los Angeles

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