June 20, 1994 12:00 PM

TAD MARTIN AND TESS WILDER, TWO scheming charmers, would seem to be made for each other but for one insurmountable barrier—he’s a character on ABC’s All My Children and she’s on ABC’s Loving. Offscreen, happily, there’s no such obstacle for two-time Emmy winner Michael Knight, 35, and Catherine Hickland, 38, the couple who play Tad and Tess—and who celebrate their second wedding anniversary this month.

Right now, in their two-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Knight and Hickland are unwinding from their week of 12-hour days at ABC, where their respective soaps are taped across the hall from each other. A chihuahua snores on the couch, two cats doze on a nearby chair and a third licks water out of a glass on the table. “An ideal family unit,” Knight says, hoisting yet another fat feline that has appeared at his feet. “Don’t think he’s burned a calorie since we got him. Look at the size of him.”

Despite the clutter of pets, Hickland and Knight hope to increase the number of their dependents one day. “We’re doing everything we can to start a family,” says the blue-eyed, blond actress. “She wants one or two kids, I want three or four,” responds the boyishly handsome Knight. “I don’t have time,” she says with a sigh, referring to her age.

Hickland, who says she’s “the kind of person who gets excited about everything,” learned the hard way to appreciate every moment. She grew up in Fort Lauderdale the youngest of three children born to Arthur Hickland, a dentist, and his wife, Mary. (Their divorce when she was only 5 left her scarred for years, she says. “You think it was something you did. My self-esteem wasn’t the best.”) After a year of college and six months as a National Airlines flight attendant (where she was tapped to play one of the airline’s Fly Me girls in TV commercials), Hickland moved to Hollywood in 1979 to try an acting career. Casting directors recommended that she lose a few pounds, and she did, inadvertently, thanks to a bout of pneumonia. “Being thin felt so good,” says Hickland, who landed a part on the short-lived soap, Texas, but then she began sinking into anorexia. Before long, “I became deathly thin—89 lbs.,” she says. Finally, after three years, she turned to private therapy, but although she now weighs a relatively robust 110 lbs., food, she says, “is still an issue I have to deal with.”

Her two previous marriages, however, she has left far behind. The first, in 1981, to a high school sweetheart, lasted a mere three months. The second, to actor David Hasselhoff in 1984, didn’t survive the celebrity trappings that followed his success as TV’s Knight Rider. “The relationship was no longer just us,” she says. “There were managers, press agents, secretaries.” In 1989, after three successive blows—their divorce, the cancellation of her second soap, Capitol, and the death of her father from a massive heart attack—Hickland made a thriller with Chuck Connors in Italy, then stayed on for two years, hoping to get her personal life on track. It was there, where she learned the language (and the cuisine), says Hickland, “that I found myself.”

The Princeton, N.J.-born Knight hasn’t had to search nearly as far. The second of three sons of Louis Knight, an English teacher, and his wife, Helen, he was cast, at 23, as All My Children’s Tad the Cad a year after graduating from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. By 1991 he had quit AMC twice and moved to L.A. twice, hoping to find movie stardom (which—twice—he did not). A friend invited him to a 35th-birthday party that Hickland, just back from Italy, was throwing for herself. Meeting her that night was “like falling in clover,” says Knight, who confesses to having dated “a girl a night” in his early days of soap-opera fame.

Between acting classes, the two developed a relationship, says Knight, who eventually proposed on Hickland’s 36th birthday. “A lot of it comes down to the ease with which you spend time together,” Knight says. And she, he adds, had become “a dear friend of mine with whom it was so easy.” They wed in Malibu on June 27, 1992, and moved back to New York City, where he rejoined AMC (Tad showed up with a case of amnesia) and, soon after, she was cast as bad-girl Tess Wilder on Loving.

Now, besides her daytime TV chores, Hickland has been taking voice lessons three times a week and says “the biggest dream of my life” is to one day sing in Phantom of the Opera—which she has seen 16 times. Knight, twice burned in Hollywood, says he’s happy enough in the TV role that has become his meal ticket. “I don’t know who said it,” he observes, “but it’s very true that life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” Still, he adds wistfully, there is one challenge he would some day like to meet. Says the veteran soap star: “I wish I could act in a story that would finally just end.”

TOBY KAHN in New York City

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