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'Three's Company''s Terri pursues her craft

Priscilla Barnes, drama queen

By Serena Kappes

Priscilla Barnes, pictured in October, is active in the L.A. theater scene; (inset) the actress in a 1981 "Three's Company" publicity shot.

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(PEOPLE) -- She rose to TV fame playing sweet and wholesome nurse Terri Alden on the hit sitcom "Three's Company," but Priscilla Barnes wouldn't have minded if Terri had an evil side.

"Darkness amuses me," she says. "The role I became famous for was light and fluffy -- I'm not a light and fluffy person."

What she is, through and through, is an actress, though Barnes admits that persevering in the craft in her 40s (she turned 47 on December 7), isn't easy. Nor is overcoming the stereotyping of her perky sitcom days. But, says Barnes, it's nothing new.

"It was always a struggle for me," she says. "Nobody ever told me, 'Wow, you're the girl for me. Please work for me.' "

Her solution has been to experiment, both with her look (for a while, her dirty blond hair was dyed black) and her roles. Recently, for example, she guest-starred as a sadomasochistic prison warden on the quirky syndicated show "She Spies."

"That's why I do obscure things, because I need to do things that are very different," she explains about her fondness for edgy parts. "You always have to keep people guessing."

Another place Barnes has found her niche is on the L.A. stage. "For me, it's therapeutic," she says. "At the end of the night, I'm depleted and exhausted."

This past fall, she starred in the play "What I Did for Love," and beginning January 31, she will star in "Columbus Day," which she describes, gleefully, as "edgy and really sick."

Getting a break

Getting dramatic is nothing new for Barnes. She recalls herself as a spunky little girl whom a neighbor likened to Bette Davis because of her flair for the theatrical. But, she says, her father was a by-the-rules military man who "didn't have any belief in me. He thought I was a troublemaker. I was a questioner."

At 15, after graduating high school in Lancaster, California, and with a few beauty pageant wins under her belt, she moved to Reno to live with her older sister. She supported herself briefly as a cocktail waitress before being fired for being underage.

In 1975, while waitressing at a San Diego, California, steakhouse, she met Bob Hope, who hired her as a "dancing fashion model" to accompany him on his trips to entertain the troops at military bases. During that time she met Lynda Carter, who encouraged her to move to Los Angeles in 1976 and pursue acting.

Two short-lived series followed. The first was 1979's "American Girls," about two female investigative reporters and which lasted only nine episodes, followed by the 1981 drama "Scruples," which ran for only two.

Then came "Three's Company." The show's producers were initially unwilling to hire her because of her inexperience with comedy and her "high cheekbones," Barnes says.

Though she has nothing but praise for her costars (she's calls John Ritter a "genius" and is still close with former co-star Joyce DeWitt), her feelings about the show aren't as positive.

"Our bosses were very, very controlling. If my hair was too blond, I'd get called up in the office," she recalls. As for the show's plots: "It was very formula; it was a box."

In 1984, after a three-year stint on the show, Barnes, along with other cast members, was dropped (to allow more screen time for Ritter). Her career since has been varied, with highlights including a role as Jack Nicholson's love interest in Sean Penn's 1995 directorial debut, "The Crossing Guard." There have also been plenty of B-movies ("Killing Grounds," anyone?).

Coming up, Barnes will appear in "Dance with the Devil," an independent film featuring "Sopranos" star James Gandolfini.

The never-married Barnes, who is dating an actor she prefers not to name, can't see herself doing anything but acting.

"The horrible thing is, I love this," she says with a giggle. "You could be on the edge of despair and you're always going, 'Tomorrow could be different.' That's what keeps you going."

For more Where Are They Now? stories, visit PEOPLE.COM

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