By People Staff
February 19, 2004 10:54 AM

Carrie Bradshaw may know good sex, but Sarah Jessica Parker knows good plot – and while she’s not afraid to tell, it ain’t gonna happen. Let 3.4 million Sex and the City fans fret over Carrie’s fate: Will she really leave her job and friends in Manhattan to move to Paris with Aleksandr the Russian? Could she reunite with Big? Or will she just hop in a cab to check out the spring collection of Manolo Blahniks at Barneys? “You’ll never get it from me,” says Parker, laughing. The fact is, until the cameras started rolling on Feb. 4 to shoot the show’s finale, not even she knew what would become of New York’s most famous fictitious columnist. To keep the curious guessing, executive producer Michael Patrick King wrote – and Parker filmed – three finales. And while Parker had access to the “real” script for several weeks, she couldn’t bring herself to read the end until the last minute.

“It was an image I just didn’t want in my head,” she says. Until, shortly after midnight on a street in Greenwich Village, with cameras rolling and crowds watching, she could delay no longer. “Michael asked me, ‘Are you ready to see it?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ ” Minutes later Parker took her last steps (on the small screen, that is; reports have surfaced that a movie is in the works, and Parker herself will not rule out a reunion at some point) as the woman in whose stilettos she has been walking for so long. A clue to the conclusion? Don’t blink. “It’s an enormous moment,” says Parker, “and it’s a tiny thing.”

In the six years since Carrie first strode through Manhattan in a tutu and tank top, all smarts, sass and – thanks to a passing bus – street-water-spattered vulnerability, the show has won five Emmys and eight Golden Globes – including the best-comedy-actress statue Parker picked up on Jan. 25 (her fourth). Along the way, City has gone from quirky cable sitcom to cultural icon, helping to chart a brave new course for feminism, friendship, fashion and, of course, fooling around. In Saudi Arabia, as one Princess Hassan recently told Parker, some women use City to teach their guys about relationships. Jokes the star: “We’re a public service announcement.”

Fans, no doubt, will miss their weekly brunch with the girls: Parker, Cynthia Nixon (Miranda), Kristin Davis (Charlotte) and Kim Cattrall (Samantha). Still, no one can take the hit series’ end as hard as the woman who, with equal parts conviction and anguish, pulled the plug on it. “You don’t want to be the last one to leave a party,” says Parker, 38, who has balanced her role as the show’s star and one of its executive producers with her life as the wife of actor Matthew Broderick, 41, and the mother of their 16-month-old son, James Wilkie. “If we stay because it’s comfortable and lucrative . . . it’s a sad ending if you stay too long.” In the end, she says, both she and King agreed “it was time to stop telling these particular stories at this moment in time.”

Plus, the most important part of her own story was no longer a script but a nightly Goodnight Moon session. “If I get to a page, James Wilkie can finish the line for me,” she says proudly. Her 80-hour work weeks were unfair to him – and her, she says. “I want to be there to read books over and over to him,” she says, adding, “I think James Wilkie is really deserving of having a parent at home.” At times, says Broderick, “she’d come home and he would be more into the nanny. Fifteen minutes later, it reversed. But she’d get very hurt.” Still, bidding farewell to the costars and crew members who have been another sort of “family,” she says, “was like being taken off life support.”

Which would explain the sight of SJ, as pals call her, on a street in lower Manhattan in early February sobbing uncontrollably after Nixon, 37, became the first of the four co-stars to finish filming. “When our assistant director announced on the street, ‘I’m very sad to tell you, we have to say goodbye right now to Cynthia Nixon,’ it was just like somebody kicking me in the stomach,” says Parker. “I had been in denial. I took it very badly.” Fortunately, by the time she completed her final wrap a few days later and the City gang headed to the Whitehorse Tavern for beers, Parker’s mood began to lift. “There were no tears,” she says. “It was joyous.”

And by the time she awoke the next day, an oddly easy feel had set in. Says Broderick: “We slept till noon. Then it was coffee, toast, boiled eggs. James came home [from an outing with his nanny], and Sarah played with him. That’s all that happened.” He did not, he adds with a laugh, have to “pry the cyanide capsules from her fingers.”

Perhaps because, after all the turmoil and tears, what his newly unemployed wife was feeling was relief. “She spent so much time carrying the weight of our entire show on her back,” says Nixon. “It’s like every moment, if she wasn’t shooting, then she was auditioning actors or in a fitting or doing narration or looping. She’s very responsible. She understands what it means to be the person around whom everything orbits.”

Everything except her child; from the moment James Wilkie was born, she found she orbited around him. “Having a child changes you,” says Parker. “Before him, I would have sacrificed myself completely for my work.” After him, she didn’t even want to sacrifice giving a bedtime bath. “You cross the threshold of your home, and if your baby is awake, you drop everything and run. You could be exhausted, upset, discouraged, disappointed. And you see him and it just changes.”

Born in Ohio to a working-class family that moved to New Jersey when she was 9, Parker is one of eight children. As a mom, she “knew in her heart that things run smoother when there is a real structure in place,” says Nixon. But both she and Broderick, who is currently on Broadway in The Producers, have long and unpredictable hours. With the help of a nanny during the week, Parker did her best to keep James Wilkie’s life consistent – morning playtime at a park near their Greenwich Village brownstone followed by a snack and a nap at noon – and connected to her own.

With a crib, a rocker and toys in her dressing room, she often brought him to the City set. There, her bond with her son – named Wilkie after a favorite 19th-century British writer, Wilkie Collins – was clear. “Sarah’s a natural,” says executive producer King. “She doesn’t overly fuss, it’s very nonprecious.” Whether called to a fitting or to shoot a scene, Parker happily passed James Wilkie to the nearest crew member – or just left him in her lap. Says King, with a laugh: “We had a couple of takes where all of a sudden you’d hear this little tiny peep. And Sarah would go ‘Sorry!’ ”

Still, even the closeness was at times frustrating. Take the day in the first week of January when James Wilkie, on the set, took his first steps. “He came back to my dressing room and his nanny said to me, ‘Look at him.’ And then she said, ‘Walk to Mama.’ And he walked right over to me,” recalls Parker. “It was just incredible.” But the next thing she knew, she was called back to work – and once again found herself torn. Says she: “It was so difficult for me to walk away.”

This is an online excerpt of PEOPLE magazine’s cover package.