February 17, 2003 12:00 PM

Jean Louisa Kelly had a sinking feeling about auditioning for Titanic, and it had nothing to do with the ship’s demise. Fresh from a three-month location shoot in 1995, Kelly declined meeting with director James Cameron because making the movie would have kept her apart from her boyfriend, Jimmy Pitaro. “I was so dumb,” she says now, though she realizes that had she been cast in the film, “Jimmy and I might not be together.”

“But just think, honey,” adds Pitaro, “you might be with Leo now!”

She’s done just fine without him. Now married to Pitaro, a 33-year-old attorney, Kelly, 30, stars as neurotic mom Kim Warner on the hit CBS sitcom Yes, Dear. “She’s very sweet but also has a restrained insanity,” says Anthony Clark, who plays her husband, Greg. “There’s an underlying tone of, ‘If you cut in front of me in the supermarket, I’ll kill you.’ ”

Growing up in Worcester, Mass., with the name Jean Kelly certainly toughened her up. “Luckily,” she says, “there weren’t a lot of Singin’ in the Rain fans in my age group.” Yet the daughter of Joe, 57, who owned a plastics-molding company, and Wendy, 55, who taught piano, soon lived up to her marquee name. At 14 she placed second in a competition called Talent America. The exposure helped lead to a role as Snow White in Broadway’s Into the Woods and films like Uncle Buck and Mr. Holland’s Opus.

Fearful of future typecasting as a mom, Kelly initially resisted the Yes, Dear gig. But after spending the past three seasons with her kiddie costars, she says, “there aren’t too many things that make you feel better than a little kid seeing you, yelling your name and running to you.” Until she becomes a real-life mom, Kelly is content to channel-surf with Pitaro in their contemporary four-bedroom Hollywood Hills home. Do they watch her show? Yes, dear. After all, says Kelly, “I have to see how my hair looks!”

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