January 26, 1998 12:00 PM

SOME 15 YEARS AGO, WHEN Melanie Griffith learned that her half sister was planning on following her into acting, “I was surprised,” says the star of Working Girl and wife of Antonio Banderas. “I always thought she wanted to be a lawyer or something.”

The confusion is understandable. Even though she costars with Janine Turner in Circle of Deceit, a two-hour ABC movie airing Jan. 29, Tracy Griffith, 32, still doesn’t seem to have decided on the color of her parachute. “I’m like Hamlet,” she says. She has considered opening a restaurant (“I love to cook, especially grits”). A folk-singer, she also wants to record an album. Then there’s the two-bedroom L.A. rental she shares with cats Chuck and County that she has been fixing up. “I am Martha Stewart,” she says. “I like gardening and painting and making things out of paper clips.”

Right now, however, her focus is on a decade-old acting career that may finally be catching fire. For her Circle of Deceit role, as a woman who seduces the husband of best friend Turner, “I’m all tarted up in high heels, a short skirt and red lipstick,” says Griffith, who has flaming hair to match. Actor-director Leonard Nimoy, who cast her as a free-spirited young woman of the ’50s in the 1988 Diane Keaton film The Good Mother, compares her to Rita Hayworth. “I needed a saucy girl with a twinkle in her eye, playful,” says Nimoy. “That was Tracy.”

As a child growing up in Bedford, N.Y., with her brother, Clay, now 30 and a set decorator (Jerry Maguire), Griffith learned the joys of career hopping from her father, former TV ad producer Peter Griffith. One day in the early ’70s he came home and said, “I’m tired of this rat race” and moved the kids and their mother—his second wife, model-actress Nanita Greene—to the Caribbean island of St. John, where he ran a real estate company.

“Not to complain about paradise,” says Griffith in retrospect, “but it was very hard. No paved roads, no TV, no radio.” Then there was the problem of her unusual mane. “Most of the islanders had never seen red hair,” she recalls, “so it was like a sign reading, ‘Beat me up!’ ” As the razzing abated, she developed a love for sailing and scuba diving. Plus there were visits from Melanie, whose mother, actress Tippi Hedren (The Birds), was Peter’s first wife. “Melanie would play us Beatles albums and be wearing funky clothes,” says Griffith. “It was like another world came to us.”

Her half sister definitely moved in a different orbit. By 1975, Melanie, only 18, had already landed her first major screen role (Night Moves) and embarked on her famously unstable relationship with first—and third—husband Don Johnson. Meanwhile, Tracy, whose parents split up the following year, was a self-described jock at a boarding school in Maryland. After graduating in 1983 she tried modeling, “but models can’t eat—forget about it!” she says. Discouraged by her father from moving to Paris to learn how to be a chef, Griffith decided on acting while taking drama classes at the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville, where she studied for two years before dropping out in 1987.

What seemed like the right career move—after The Good Mother, says Griffith, “I got a lot of attention”—turned into a nightmare with the critical drubbing she received for a flop horror movie, 1990’s The First Power. “It flipped me out,” says Griffith. But after she signed on with a drama coach recommended by Melanie, TV offers began to follow, including a short-lived 1995 ABC series, The Monroes, and last year’s Lifetime movie Their Second Chance, with Lindsay Wagner.

One role that Griffith always gets raves for is that of aunt to Melanie’s three children, who call Tracy “Red Aunt.” When the half sisters get together in L.A. they cook and bask in the charm of Banderas, whom Melanie, now 40, wed in 1996. “Antonio,” says Tracy, “is such a gentleman.” Although she has no Antonio in her own life, “I think she will eventually get the pangs for children,” says Clay. “But who knows with Tracy? She’s like a Thoroughbred, tossing her head and running hard.”

TOM GLIATTO

KEN BAKER in Los Angeles

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