In "American Graffiti," she was a beacon of fleeting enticement driving a Thunderbird. She was discovered, much like Lana Turner, in a Hollywood restaurant. And then, suddenly, she became "Chrissy," the voluptuous naif of "Three's Company" -- implausibly blond, scantily clad and a bit of an airhead. The show thrived in the era of the "jiggly," or, as Suzanne Somers says today, more precisely, The Age of the "Five Jigglies" -- Farrah Fawcett, assorted Charlie's Angels and herself.

Then, in the summer of 1980, she left -- contract disputes and all that. And because Suzanne Somers is not now and never has been the befuddled blond she once played, she can look at what happened with a certain detachment, if not awe.

"It was phenomenal when you think about it," she says. "In one year, I was on 55 national magazine covers. I know that because after a while you just start counting because it gets so incredible. Including the cover of Newsweek and featured on '60 Minutes' with Morley Safer. And I really couldn't figure out what was happening. I wasn't going to push it away, but it was really ... And if you're lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time you can have a great ride.

"It was a great ride. There's a power attached to being on the number one show in the nation that I didn't realize was attached to it until I left ... I was used to calling up the head of movies at ABC or CBS and saying, 'I just got this script, I really like it,' and they'd say, 'When do you want to do it?' Or you called a press conference and the room is overflowing.I just figured that's the way it was."

This is the way it is now: She's almost 40, the mother of a 21-year-old son. She's served her time as an American blond archetype and even had her tussle with Playboy (she lost; they published). Recently she's been on the road on behalf of her new series, "She's the Sheriff" (it premieres here tomorrow at 7:30 on Channel 4), and early next year, Warner Books will publish her sort-of memoir of a Catholic girlhood, a Literary Guild featured alternate. But she knows that when people stare at her, it is because of the one role and one program that changed her life.

"In the beginning of my 'Three's Company' career," she says, "I had a manager who was very strategically oriented, Jay Bernstein, who made me crazy. He's a wonderful manager, but he made me crazy. He had me in a race where there was no race. He would call me in the morning and say, 'I don't know, Farrah's on four covers and Cheryl's on three covers, and you're only on two this month and you're slipping.' And he would get me crazy ...

"Jay said to me at one time, he said, 'I'd like to put you in the Judy Holliday mold,' he said, 'but no, maybe we can get you in the Marilyn Monroe mold, too,' and suddenly I didn't know who I was supposed to be ..."

She looks startlingly slight (one, after all, has certain expectations), and is wearing a silky teal dress. And though the conversation will turn to (yes) poetry, and her book, the roller coaster of "Three's Company," and even Gary Hart, the point, of course, is "She's the Sheriff," and we might as well be done with it.

That's why a publicity person from WRC-TV is hanging around and why her husband Alan Hamel wanders in and out of an adjoining room. Somers plays the widowed sheriff, Hildy Granger, and the cast includes a number of television veterans, including Emmy-winner Pat Carroll as Hildy's mother.

"This new character is not dumb," Somers says. "I'm playing a real person now. You either like me or you don't. Because I'm not even dressing in a glamorous way. I wear a uniform, a khaki uniform with a shirt and tie, and it's interesting to see how people will react to that."

Some people (sexists, all of them) will be very saddened by that.

"Within the confines of a sitcom and on a three-day rehearsal week, I'm putting out the best work I can," she goes on. "That doesn't mean this is Shakespeare, but it does mean that within this little art form called sitcoms" (she pauses) "that I'm getting off."

And at that, she grins.

If her agent saw her as a Monroe or a Holliday, in fact her comedy depended on malapropism in the often tiresome conventions of situation comedy. But there was a quality of lost daffiness in her character, and if some blamed her personally for the lewd estate of television, others wished to swoop down to protect her.

She started as Suzanne Mahoney, one of four children born to a medical secretary and a gardener in San Bruno, Calif. -- a not altogether idyllic childhood, as she will reveal in "Keeping Secrets." It is a subject she does not want to talk about -- wait for the book -- but she says it is "a brutal account ... about being the child of a alcoholic. It's not about being a star. It's my life up to being a star. I never planned to write it, it just, I just couldn't help myself." Warner Books publisher Nansey Neiman would say only, "It's a powerful and moving story." Somers says she wrote it with her father's blessings.

Her high school nickname was "Boney Mahoney." At 17, in her first year at a Sacred Heart college in San Francisco, she got pregnant, which was, as she puts it, "frowned upon" -- and hastily married. "You're raised with this concept of sex is bad, nasty, dirty, unclean and you save it for the one you love," she says. "Which is always a huge mixed message to me. If it's bad, nasty, dirty, terrible and unclean, why are you going to give all that to somebody you love?"

Within a year, she was divorced, and at 19 she met Alan Hamel on the set of a show called "The Anniversary Game." "He was the game show host and I was the prize model and I got fired after the first day because I kept looking at the wrong television camera." Hamel, who for years ran a popular talk show in Canada, is now her personal manager.

George Lucas, she recalls, asked only if she could drive before he cast her in 1973's "American Graffiti," and that same year, "Touch Me," subtitled "The Poems of Suzanne Somers," was published. Then she heard about a part on a Dom DeLuise show called "Lotsa Luck," and, though she did not get hired, she boarded the roller coaster.

"I went and read for Dom DeLuise and while I was waiting I was sitting in the commissary very nervous and it was about 2 in the afternoon and no one was there and in walked Johnny Carson with his producer, Fred DeCordova. So they talked with me because I was the only girl there and they said, 'What do you do,' and I said, 'Well, I'm an actress. And an author.' So they wished me luck. And that afternoon, I just sent everyone in the 'Tonight Show' office a copy of my book. I mean the guy that cleans up got a copy of my book.

"And that week I got a call on Friday night to be on the 'Tonight Show.' And I thought it was because they loved my poetry. But they read the back flap and saw that I was the blond in the Thunderbird in 'American Graffiti.' And no one had ever known who that blond was. So that was my introduction to television.

"Johnny Carson liked talking to me because I was so, uh, non-Hollywood. There was nothing slick about me at all. I really was just a small-town girl. So he said to me the first time, he said, 'How long have you been in Hollywood?' And I said, 'One week.' And he said, 'Gee, you don't waste much time, do you?' And I said no."

For a time, she says, she was virtually living off Carson's $320 fees (appearing in the flaky final 30 minutes of the old 90-minute show). And after she'd been on the program dozens of times, ABC's then-programming head, Fred Silverman, took note and thought that when the right project came up, he would find a way to use her.

The right project debuted in March 1977 as a limited spring series, based on a British program called "Man About the House." The American version was called "Three's Company," which still runs and reruns in Washington and probably on Mars as well. For those who denounced the medium (and also for many of those who did not), the program was a prime example of its wretchedness; adjectives like "smutty" regularly were attached to it.

The premise was that a young man (Jack, played by John Ritter) shared an apartment with two women: the practical, conventional Janet, played by Joyce DeWitt, and the dizzy, shapely Chrissy Snow, played by Somers. By the time the show returned in the fall, it had become a national sensation -- and something of a scandal. What silliness! What double-entendre! What, uh, jiggles, most of which belonged to Suzanne Somers.

"It really was a great thing to do, playing that kind of naive, uh, innocent, pure character," she says of the Chrissy whom critics saw as anything but. "If you really dissect the show, Jack and Janet were parents. I was the little girl and they were my parents and their real job was to protect me from myself and various elements out there. And all I was really about was being pure, naive and honest. Not dumb, not really dumb, just a circuitious route to logic.

"When you look at it, the things I was saying, I usually came up with the right answer at the end of each show. But I came about it from a different angle than anybody. At the end of each show, all of them would go, 'Chrissy, how did you know that?' That's usually whatthe bottom line was at the end of each show.

"The reason people like Chrissy was that she didn't threaten anybody. She didn't threaten women because she was too good, she wouldn't steal their boyfriends or husbands. Men liked her because she was kind of cute and cuddly. And little girls liked her because they'd like to be like her and little boys liked her because they'd like," she's laughing now, "whatever they wanted to do. And it's sort of one of those characters who were very appealing."

When, seven years ago, Somers asked for a raise -- from $30,000 per episode to $150,000 and, more importantly, a piece of the show's earnings -- the producers resisted. And the result was that the last four years of the show were Chrissy-less.

"As I look back on it," she says, "everything about it was positive and wonderful and it gave me the visibility one needs to move on in this -- " She hesitates, never finding just the word. "But I did not leave 'Three's Company' in a way that, as I look back on it now, that I would have. It was -- everybody was so caught up in their own egos and the power of being the number one show at that time that no one thought it through, including myself, and it was just stupid the way we all handled it.

"I didn't know what I had."

"She'sthe Sheriff" is something of a respite for Somers, who, in that mysterious profession of "entertainer," has been working at a terrifying pace. Last year, she says, she went on the road and ended up putting on the beaded dress and doing her Las Vegas act 600 times. And while doing that, she wrote "Keeping Secrets."

"Sometimes," she says, "you don't know what's going on in this inner dialogue, your subconscious. Because every day last year I'd wake up in various hotels and I had all my papers next to me on the bed. I wouldn't even get out of bed. I'd just pick them all up, put them on the bed, and I would write until it was dark. And then when it was dark, I'd look outside and see it was dark and realize that it was time to put on my makeup and go downstairs and go on stage and do the show.

"I didn't plan on doing it {the book}, but I bet subconsciously I took all that work 'cause I ... so I'd be forced to be in these impersonal rooms like this where there was nothing to do but think and focus in on what I was writing."

"Touch Me," published when she was in her midtwenties, is now in its third printing. "One year I sold more poetry than Rod McKuen," she says, not minding the implied literary comparison. "It's a very low-key market, so that you don't go around saying, 'I was a bestselling poet of 19-whatever,' but I was."

The poems -- well, perhaps that is not the word. But the writing is very personal, sometimes painfully so, and it tells you something about Somers as a cynical young model:

The clammy ad exec has gray eyes

And a dour mouth forever insisting that Cleopatra

Is not quite right to sell the plots along the Nile ...

Or a newly divorced mother:

Sometimes I see my son

And remember when I thought I'd failed

Because so many told me

A mother who bore a boy

Should not send away his father.

Or in more intimate moods:

I used to sleep with this guy

Who always sweetly asked me

When lovemaking had cooled to conversation

"Did I please you?"

Clinically, he asked, like putting wallpaper

On the west wall

Or adjusting the books on the shelf.

"You don't do poetry 'cause you want to get rich," she says. "You do poetry because -- you don't even plan to do poetry. Poetry just sort of comes out of you, and it comes out of me, uh, when I'm in pain. I haven't written a lot of poetry lately 'cause I'm not in much pain ... In the thirties, I'm finding the overall picture is clearing. And I'm getting near the end of the thirties. The forties are supposed to be even better than that. So I'll let you know."

Heading into her forties, she and her husband live in an adobe house 17 miles from Las Vegas. It is, she says, "in the middle of nowhere, no one around me, coyotes at night." She talks about getting into movies, but not with much urgency, and she wants to slow down: "I'm starting to get interested in the time off. To think. I find I'm sometimes too busy to think."

She has, after all, been busy in several ways since the birth of her son Bruce,who is now in college.

"All my adult life, since I was 17, my life always existed around a child's time frame, which was, 'No, I really can't stay, I've got to get back and get dinner, I've got to let the baby sitter go.'

"I'm glad that my career didn't happen for the first 10 years of his life. Because the first 10 years, we were poor but he didn't know it. And I gave him such quality time. Then around 10 years old, my career started happening, but he was secure and happy." Though, she concedes, he was often jealous of the time she spent working.

She also knows that she is disparaged with words like "bimbo" or worse, and some people may not think much of being an entertainer and appearing in "Hollywood Wives" and hosting "The Late Show," and in fact having had the life and looks of Suzanne Somers.

"You know," she says, "when you're in the public eye, and I've certainly been, for want of a better word, the butt of many jokes, Johnny Carson's monologues for years ... And I found myself using Gary Hart when I was doing monologues on 'The Late Show.' And after I did it, I thought, aw, I feel sorry for Gary Hart, that I was using him for fodder. And I thought, hey, that's what comes with the territory when you're in the public eye. I've been through it myself and he's been through it and you've got to take it. You've got to take it. And he just was -- talk about getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar! A major cookie jar."

She shakes her head, eyes agleam, looking like Chrissy Snow, but now more of a distant, older sister.

"All I can say about Gary Hart," she goes on, "is I hope whatever happened that Saturday night was really great. Really great. Because he had to give up his whole career ... So I hope whatever happened in that apartment was the greatest night of his life. He's got to be saying to himself, 'What did I do?' The trouble with being an adult is, for every action there is a reaction. And you can't take it back."