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Paging Doctor Lahti : Actress Joins CBS’ ‘Chicago Hope’ as Something New in a Medical Drama--a Female Doctor With Ambitions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sitting on her sprawling back lawn because the house she just moved into is suffused with the smell of fresh paint, actress Christine Lahti is the picture of contentment.

Her large black lab is snoozing nearby, the 2-year-old twins are asleep upstairs, a gurgling pond forms a backdrop to conversation, and soon a car will come to whisk her to the set of CBS’ “Chicago Hope,” where she plays Dr. Kathryn Austin, the dynamic new heart surgeon and vital addition to a changing cast.

With the almost-but-not-quite-permanent departure last week of Mandy Patinkin--whose portrayal of the brilliant but increasingly unglued Dr. Jeffrey Geiger won him the Emmy Award for best actor in a dramatic series in September--Lahti moves to center stage.

Suddenly in this second season of TV medical dramas, it’s the time for doctors who are women. And not just any female physician wearing a stethoscope like a reverse necklace, but female doctors in power. While “ER” recently placed a new chief resident (Laura Innes as Dr. Kerry Weaver) among its gaggle of hunks, “Chicago Hope” has raised the profile a notch higher with a physician who maneuvers as smoothly at the operating table as she does at the poker table.

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“I’m almost positive I will become head cardiac surgeon,” Lahti says of her character. “And I hope to become chief of surgery. The whole shebang--general, thoracic, all surgery. Which apparently is very rare. First of all, that there is a woman cardiac surgeon, and second, that she would become chief of surgery.

“So that’s really going to bust up the boys’ club,” she says, grinning.

And, of course, set up some delicious dramatic possibilities, particularly when romance looms with neurosurgeon Aaron Shutt (Adam Arkin).

A surgeon’s daughter with the long, tapered fingers of a surgeon, Lahti looks the part. But unlike her character, who “hasn’t learned to really prioritize,” Lahti says that with lots of therapy, she has learned how to juggle family needs with career ambitions. She is married to director Thomas Schlamme, and they have a 7-year-old son in addition to the twins.

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“Before I got married and had kids,” she says, “if I didn’t work, I didn’t know who I was.”

Until now, the 45-year-old actress’s forte has been theater and character-driven parts in movies such as “Swing Shift” (1984), as Goldie Hawn’s spunky girlfriend; “Housekeeping” (1987), as the eccentric aunt, and “Running on Empty” (1988), as a mother who had a radical underground past. But she went after the TV role aggressively.

As series creator David E. Kelley explained: “She came in and said, ‘You need me, I’m it , take me.’ And we said OK.

“We knew that Mandy was leaving eventually and we would probably add somebody,” Kelley said, “but we didn’t know whether it would be man or woman, heart surgeon or ophthalmologist. Christine then called and cleared it all up for us. She seemed to have all the ingredients you look for in a lead character. She exudes power.”

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In the lexicon of the “Chicago Hope” team, Lahti is a lead along with Arkin, not the lead. She does not replace Patinkin, whose name came first on the acting credits, but becomes, as Kelley put it, “an addition to the ensemble.” Patinkin will return for several episodes at the end of the season.

So whose name, hers or Arkin’s, will be first on the marquee? “Billing is a little complicated,” she replies slowly. “I’ll have first billing every other time.”

Although Schlamme directed two episodes of “Chicago Hope” last season (and an episode of “ER” that aired Thursday), Lahti heard about Patinkin’s plans from “best girlfriend” Jessie Nelson, writer-director of “Corrina, Corrina” and a close friend and writing partner of Patinkin’s wife.

“I had mentioned that if I was ever to do a series, it would be working with someone like David Kelley in a part like Mandy Patinkin’s,” Lahti recalled. So when Nelson phoned, saying, “I have a brainstorm: Why don’t you replace Mandy?” Lahti decided to go for the role on the spot.

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“I’m reading all these really mediocre feature film scripts. I do plays, but I can’t really make a good living doing that. So what am I being snobbish about television for?” she reasoned. “Now suddenly the writing on television is so far superior in certain cases to much of the feature film stuff.”

Lahti, who prepared for the role by observing open-heart surgery at St. John’s and abdominal surgery at Santa Monica Hospital--having had to overcome a severe initial bout of nausea--is also suggesting plot lines.

“One of the things I want to explore is this custody thing that’s going to happen,” she says. Because the Austin character is so busy, her ex-husband is going to sue for the children.

A la O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark?

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“Bingo!” Lahti says.

“Chicago Hope” is not her first TV series. Back in 1978, she was the daughter on the short-lived ABC sitcom “The Harvey Korman Show.” “It only lasted six shows, and I was so glad it was canceled.”

She was “approached to look at ‘Cheers,’ ” she says, “but I wouldn’t even read it: ‘I’m a theater actress.’ ” There are no regrets, however. “I wasn’t ready to commit to something like that.” She also has done TV movies, including “Crazy From the Heart” on TNT, directed by Schlamme, and the 1987 miniseries “Amerika.”

A 1972 graduate of the University of Michigan, with a year toward her master’s at the University of Florida, Lahti got her first big break in theater in 1977 Off Broadway in David Mamet’s “The Woods.” Until then she worked as a waitress and did a slew of commercials.

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Periodically Lahti returns to theater. She was Joan Allen’s replacement in “The Heidi Chronicles” on Broadway in 1989, and earlier this year did “Three Hotels” at the Mark Taper.

After seeing herself in “Hideaway” this year, a movie in which she played yet another of those “earnest mom” roles that tend to be offered actresses over 35, Lahti was, in a sense, prepped for TV.

“At the time, I needed to get back to work. I had just had the twins. I needed to make some money, so I’m glad I did it. But I thought, ‘I’m being wasted and I don’t want to do that anymore.’ I’m at my prime creatively, and suddenly I’m in an industry where I’m supposed to be invisible. Or less valuable. When I feel I’m at the peak. My peak.”

* “Chicago Hope” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on CBS (Channel 2).

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