Jean Smart hasn’t looked back since she left “Designing Women” last year. She hasn’t had time.

Countless stars have left popular series and immediately disappeared from view, but that hasn’t been the case with Smart, who played the Sugarbakers’ business manager Charlene Frazier for five seasons. Smart has been working nonstop in features (“Mistress”), TV movies (“Overkill”) and off-Broadway (“The End of the Day.”). Her latest is “Just My Imagination,” an NBC movie on Monday.

Smart said she has no qualms about leaving “Designing Women.”


“I had a good time doing the show, but five years is an awfully long time for an actor to work on the same project,” she said. “It is sort of an unnatural position for an actor to be in to a certain extent.”

Because “Designing Women” was such a lucrative job, Smart said, it made her decision even easier. “I had been afforded a comfortable living because of the show,” she said. “But because of that, I almost had to get back in touch with reality. I didn’t become an actor for the money, so I can’t stay with a job for that reason. I did too many years of theater where you just get by from month to month, happily, to make that a priority. I had to remind myself that wasn’t important.”

Smart has been courted by producers to do another series. Her answer: “Don’t even tempt me.” She said after doing a series for so long she had doubts she could still act. “When you do a half-hour show, there’s only so much you can do,” she said. “At best you’re going to get a character with two-and-a-half dimensions. You have to take shortcuts.”

In the new comedy “Just My Imagination,” Smart plays Pally Thompson, a small-town schoolteacher whose life changes dramatically when an old classmate, now a pop superstar (Tom Wopat), writes a hit song about her. Some people may think Pally is a kissing cousin to Charlene, Smart said, but she wanted to do the movie because, “‘I was so enchanted by the script. It’s quirky and very funny.”

Smart thinks a lot of viewers will identify with Pally. “I suppose a lot of people have that fantasy about (someone) who you idolized when you are a teen, like the boy who was the big man on campus, or somebody you had a fantasy about who you never thought would look at you, suddenly is batting his eyes at you.”

“ ‘Just My Imagination” also stars Smart’s husband, Richard Gilliland (“thirtysomething”), as her boyfriend, the town’s only eligible bachelor. Smart and Gilliland met when he guest-starred on “Designing Women.”

Smart said the two hadn’t planned on starring together in the film. “We didn’t engineer this, it just sort of happened,” she said, smiling. One of the producers, Smart said, saw Gilliland in a local play and thought he would be perfect for the part.

“It was fun (to work together),” Smart said. “We would take our work home. It helps to have a person to run lines with.”

The two also have starred together on stage in Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna’s two-character comedy, “It Had to Be You.”

“We just had a ball,” Smart said. “We had to put it together in 11 days. We were terrified because it is just the two of you for two hours. We did in it Santa Barbara and we have done it in Dallas, Austin, Texas, and San Francisco.”

The couple’s greatest collaboration is their son, Connor, 3. Smart said her life completely changed when he was born. “It’s almost impossible to remember what (life) was like before he was born,” she said. “I can’t remember what I thought. I can’t remember what I did. I said to my husband, ‘What did we do with all of our time? What did we talk about?’ Because you find that’s all you talk about.”

Smart, a diabetic, said the pregnancy took her and her husband by surprise. “I had to go into diabetic basic training real quick. The doctors were sort of predicting all sorts of doom and gloom. I was frightened, but I knew he was going to be OK and he was going to be a lucky boy.

“I had nothing to do but be a professional diabetic,” she said. “I did 12 blood tests a day. I had to exercise at the same time very day. You have no choice. These are things I should have always done. I was smoking and I haven’t smoked since. I got healthier than I have been since high school. It’s mind-boggling what you will do for a baby, you won’t do for yourself.”

“Just My Imagination” airs Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC .

Repeats of “Designing Women” air weekdays at 10 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 11 p.m. on KTLA , weekdays at noon and 4 p.m. and Sundays at 11:30 p.m. on WGN , weekdays at 3 p.m. and Saturday at 4 p.m. on KMIR , weekdays at 12:30 and 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. on KUSI.