WITH AN EYE ON . . . : To Casey Sander, acting is a lot like sports--practice and win a few


Casey Sander's life mirrors his "Grace Under Fire" character's enough for the actor to say, "Yeah, he's a lot like me, a guy who's done many things in his life, someone who's proud to be an American. I was raised in the military."

Sander doesn't mind finding similarities between himself and Wade.

"Wade's a Jack-of-all-trades, and so am I," says the actor, who adds he doesn't share Wade's political views. (Wade is a fan of Rush Limbaugh's.)

Sander, 38, explains that his work as a shipyard hand, a log-cabin builder, a bartender, a professional athlete and a car dealer helped give him "nuances" as an actor.

At 17, the Air Force brat was drafted to play baseball for the California Angels. "I thought that was my future," he says. "Unfortunately, I ran into a string of injuries. I tore up my knee, I got hit in the eye and the last year I was offered the opportunity to go to college on a football scholarship. I wasn't going anywhere in baseball, so I took it."

The athlete had thought a career in sports broadcasting would suit him just fine, until a communications requirement at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., sent him to an acting class. "We had to go on a real audition to experience how nerve-racking they can be."

He ended up getting a role in a production of "Waiting for Godot." "I cut my teeth in theater of the absurd," he says with a laugh.

He found acting oddly like sports: "You work with a core group, very much like a team. The rehearsal process is like practice. You do work away, like studying lines and character. That's like the weight room. You get jitters before the performance, like before a game and then when you deliver a good line, it's like hitting a home run or scoring a touchdown."

Sander acted throughout college and, after graduating, headed to Los Angeles with his life savings of $3,000, only to lose $1,500 on a stop in Reno. In L.A. he tended bar at Monty's in Westwood and Gladstone's in the Palisades before landing an agent. His first significant part came in print advertising. He was the Winston man.

After that, "the one-liners came. ... My first job in 1981 was on 'The Fall Guy' and my line was 'Yup. Over there,' " he says with a laugh.

"I am a great example of building a career very slowly on one-liners, to featured to guest star," he says. "It's been a long road with some good times."

The road, he says, has been worth it. "I feel lucky. I spent so many days out of work, that I just love this. It wasn't too long ago that I didn't know where my next paycheck was coming from. I was running all over the place, starting a family (he has two children, Max, 6, and Mimi, 4) and driving all over to auditions. One year I put 35,000 miles on my car."

Like a good team player, he's out to dispel the rumors that things are tense on the "Grace" set and that star Brett Butler is difficult. "A lot of crap has been written about her and it's all pulp. We all get along fine, and I'd say I've never been around a more supportive group of people than this cast."

(Life doesn't always imitate art, though, as this week's episode is titled "Grace vs. Wade" and revolves around what happens after Grace takes a spill in front of Wade's house.)

Sander is delighted that the show's producers and writers have been supportive of his character, going so far as to incorporate the actor's love of pottery into Wade's life. "They wanted to give the right-winger an eclectic side and I mentioned that I throw pottery."

So impressed were the producers that Wade now has his own pottery niche, and so does Sander. "They built me this 6-by-8-foot room with walls on wheels, a mobile studio."

From that studio, Sander presented cast and crew at the show's wrap party last season some 95 pots he made in "Casey's Corner." Wade would approve.

"Grace Under Fire" airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.

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