According to Nancy McKeon, the acting profession chose her. And it was a perfect match for the actress who came to fame as the tough teen-ager Jo on the popular '80s sitcom "The Facts of Life."
"I love what I do so much," enthuses McKeon, 29, who stars in the new sitcom "Can't Hurry Love," premiering Monday on CBS. "I have been doing it my whole life."
Well, at least since she started modeling in New York when she was 2. "I had my own little portfolio," McKeon recalls, relaxing in her sparse but roomy dressing room at Studio City's CBS Studio Center, where "Can't Hurry Love" films. "I did the Sears catalogue--the most hideous polyester outfits."
Her parents, though, never forced McKeon or her older brother Philip ("Alice") into the business. "My dad had his own travel agency and had a picture of my brother on his desk," she recalls. "One of his clients had a son who had done a few commercials. At that time, [talent] agencies would hold open calls. They would call everybody in and put them up against the wall and say, 'You stay. You go. You come back in a year.' My parents talked it over and my dad was concerned about money for college and said, 'If they do a commercial they could have fun. What the heck.' "
As fate would have it, the day her mother was going to take her brother to one of the casting calls, McKeon's baby-sitter canceled at the last minute. "My mom just said, 'Let's take you with me.' And I kind of got shoved in along with everybody else. So it chose me."
Education, though, was her parents' first priority. "I was in a private Catholic school," McKeon says. And her parents, she adds, always asked her, " 'Do you want to do this? If you don't want to do this, that's great.' They never were, like, 'You've got to do this.' They weren't living off of us. That [money] was all going into the bank for college. That's just basically what it was for. It just sort of snowballed into what it was."
McKeon appeared on "Facts of Life" from age 14 until she was 21. "We were doing a lot of changing and growing up in every different direction," McKeon says. "You know, you are forming basically. And no matter what's going on in your life, you have to be there [on the set]. You are doing a job. No matter what you look like, no matter what you are going through, which is a little strange. But this time, I think I am formed. I sort of am what I am."
After "Facts of Life" left NBC in 1988, McKeon decided to take some time off to refocus and, as she describes it, "to replenish the well."
"I create life experience as an actor," she explains. "That's what I do. If you are lacking in that life experience you sort of have nothing to bring to the table. When you are working in this environment, you come in the morning and you leave at night. I was working for, like, 10 years with barely two consecutive weeks off. Plus, I had school a lot of that time, too. I thought it was important to live life for a year and see what I was about. You also realize once you stop, how tired you are."
McKeon has been working steadily in TV movies ("Question of Love") and features ("Where the Day Takes You"). Though she's had a great time playing different characters, "all of a sudden I started to get this inkling, 'Boy, I'd really like that day to day, go in and laugh and have fun and follow a character over the years."
Doing a sitcom, she acknowledges, is hard work, "but I don't know, I have said it before, if you can find what you love to do and are able to do it and make a living at it, it's a privilege. It really is. I have been fortunate to be put in this position by way of the universe. I love doing this every day. And I can make a living at it."
In "Can't Hurry Love," McKeon plays 28-year-old Annie O'Connell, a placement coordinator at a personnel office in New York who is looking for Mr. Right and so far has only met Mr. Wrong. Mariska Hargitay plays her spirited neighbor and best friend Didi, always quick with the advice. Louis Mandylor is Annie's sweet but socially unpolished co-worker who usually finds his dates on the New York transit system.
When she met [executive producer] Gina Wendkos to discuss ideas for a series, "We sat down one night and got along very well instantly," McKeon recalls. "We have the same sensibility. We wanted to tell a lot of the same stories and we had the same feel for the show. We played around with some ideas and then we went to [executive producers] Jonathan Axelrod and James Widdoes ("Dave's World") and the four of us in a room together over several days really worked out these people and their situations."
McKeon says she really doesn't have that much in common with her small-screen alter ego. "It's yes and no," she says. "I think the basic things [are the same], trying to figure out the world today. ... I think I have gone through a lot of life experiences in such a short time. I am more progressive than she is. I have learned more of these lessons than Annie has."
"Can't Hurry Love" premieres Monday at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.