LOS ANGELES -- After three intense years as Grace Van Owen, the glossy, hard-edged prosecutor on NBC's "L.A. Law," Susan Dey had tired of her character's tumultuous, relentlessly introspective relationship with star litigator Michael Kuzak, played by Harry Hamlin. The show's writers, sharing her fatigue, had typed up a farewell scene, the couple's final romantic split -- seen at the end of last season. Fine, Dey said to herself. But you can never completely trust writers, even ones as true to life and human nature as the award-winning creators of "L.A. Law." So she and Hamlin made an informal pact. "We didn't want to break up and then two episodes later it's ... 'I've missed you.' 'I've missed you too.' 'Can we get back together again?' " She says this sitting in her manager's home and flashing the elfin grin that has enraptured male television viewers for two decades. "So we made a commitment... . If that script comes in, we both go in, we say we won't do this. We will not do this, it is unacceptable." Thus ends (she thinks) the fabled romance of Gracie and Mickey. The television milestone suggests the star power coming finally to a very private yet congenial 36-year-old actress who began at age 17 -- with little warning or acting experience -- as the teenage heartthrob Laurie on "The Partridge Family." One further measure of Dey's growing willingness to assert herself in what she calls "this theme park town of ours" will be seen Sunday night at 9 on ABC, when she stars in "I Love You Perfect," a television movie she co-produced. The film is based on a 1987 Washington Post Magazine article, "To a Woman Dying Young," about the romance of an Aspen Grove, Va., woman who discovers too late, due to an administrative error, that she has cervical cancer. Film and television actors with their own production companies are now as common as $5 million real estate listings in Beverly Hills. They provide the ultimate self-protection for someone like Dey, who rarely found movie scripts that matched the quality of "L.A. Law" and saw no way to suit her own tastes unless she helped guide the movie development process herself. If only the whole creative process didn't pull her in so many directions, she gently complains. Dey, in recent years, has discussed bluntly her teenage bout with anorexia, her disgust with tabloids that have exploited her struggle with alcoholism and a number of political and social concerns, particularly homelessness. But she clearly prefers to focus on her acting, has no plans to launch a second career as a producer, and seems to ache for quiet times with her 10-year-old daughter and husband Bernard Sofronski, the 48-year-old producer of "Playing for Time" and other projects, whom she married last year. Producing and acting at the same time, she says, "was just emotionally exhausting." So when she hit the critical points of the production, an effort to turn the usual disease-of-the-week TV movie into something special, "I said this is your job, you're an actor now, and you must relinquish all thoughts of anything else. It was really a tug of war for me, very hard for me to do that." "L.A. Law," which begins its new season next month, has enough intensity for her already. "I was just in there," she says, thinking ahead to the broadcast of the film and her appearance at a national march for housing in Washington Saturday. "I started off light this year {on "L.A. Law"} but I just had three days straight of 12-, 14-, 16-hour days. I had a three-minute lunch, just enough time to go to the bathroom. It was just this kind of focus" -- she puts her hand inches from her face -- "and they just eat you up" -- she makes a loud, raucous sucking sound -- "and then, 'Okay, you're free.' " Kuzak will have a new romance, Dey reveals with a smile, but the actors only see scripts a week or two before they film so she does not know if love will once again find Grace Van Owen. "I need a big write-in from audiences on what kind of love interest Grace should have," she says. Professionally, things look better for Grace. "They talked to me about the possibility of going into a judgeship," she says. "I said I don't know if I'm ready for this. Every day the black robes, sitting up there in that chair. I agreed that the point of view would be fascinating. I'd love for the show to explore from the bench how tough that job is, but the {dramatic problem is} being a reactionary, always reacting, always reacting." Waiting for something to happen is what Dey used to do, and it often worked out very well. She was raised in Westchester County, N.Y. Her mother died from complications of pneumonia when she was 8, and her father supported his four children as a reporter and editor for the Gannett newspaper chain. Her stepmother sent a picture of the 15-year-old Susan to a modeling agency, which led to several covers and an audition for "The Partridge Family," the situation comedy that ran four years starring Shirley Jones as the matriarch of a family rock band. While starring in the show, she had a bout with what she now knows was anorexia. It grew, she says, from the stress of being a very visible 17-year-old at a time of growing focus on independent women -- and on the sticklike model Twiggy. At that age, she says, "you feel like an adult but you are not an adult and society does not treat you as an adult... . One of the choices you do have is what you eat and what you don't eat... . Also the sexual revolution started at that time and when you're anorexic you've got the body of a man so you don't have a lot to deal with." Then came the moment of panic when the series was canceled and Dey was expelled from the cocoon of friendly directors, producers and crew who had been her second family for so long. Her salvation was Renee Valente, a veteran producer who saw from the beginning a natural sensitivity and ability to open up to a camera. "When you look into Susan's eyes," Valente says, "you see a world of life. She is very special." There was resistance to giving adult parts to "that little girl from the Partridge family," but Valente found work for her. The exposure to different directors, different methods -- and even the routine coldness and paranoia of Hollywood -- helped her grow. She married her agent, Lenny Hirshan. He was 25 years older and the marriage lasted not quite five years. But she worked steadily, becoming more impatient by the year. Then she met Steven Bochco, co-creator of "L.A. Law," at a picnic for the school that both their children attended. He mentioned the Van Owen role and she leaped at it. It eventually won her Emmy nominations for best dramatic actress, and pushed her up into the stratosphere of actors with "Q," public favorability, ratings so high they can persuade a network to buy a television movie just by saying they will appear in it. On a quiet Sunday afternoon in her kitchen, Dey read John Ed Bradley's Washington Post Magazine article about Vivian Williams and her boyfriend, Alan Mattern. Her manager had pushed her to read it after she rolled her eyes at the idea of another story about a woman dying young. She fell in love with it, and was ready when the ABC executives asked, "Why do you want to do this?" "I think there are a lot of questions we go asking ourselves," she told them. "Why am I stuck in traffic? Why am I inhaling all these fumes? It's about removing all of that. It's about removing the obstacles that we place in front of us so that instead of enjoying life we go around grunting and groaning... . These were simple people, but in their simplicity they lived lives a lot fuller than most of us do." She said she is delighted with the result, although as a first-time producer she still thinks back on the times when she wanted to stretch the filming another day, or try a scene a different way, and was reminded "to put on your producer's hat, Susan," and consider what that would do to the budget. Director Harry Winer, although acknowledging that he had his disagreements with Dey, also says she brought off the role with intelligence and unusual vulnerability, even in the death scenes, which, she says, she dreaded. "I approach my work with such seriousness, I give all of me," she says, "and I never had to do that before." "It was nice to know there was 'L.A. Law' to go back to because there is so much I know about her," Dey says. But familiarity breeds its own problems. "I don't want to take it for granted because it shows, it always shows... . You got to keep it on its feet. That is a very hard thing to do. It's doing a play into a fourth year." Dey confesses she is not naturally disposed to planning ahead. Friendly demands that she make sure she has another movie to do next summer fail to move her. She and her family live in a house that is actually a building project in progress, and she admits to never finishing a house she started. "I've never really had a game plan in my whole life," she says. "In fact, I fight them, which may not be a very good characteristic of mine. Whenever I begin to get four walls around me, something I've created myself or something someone has created for me, I break down. I myself could never be a lawyer, it's not my temperament." Few other prominent actors would have gone ahead with Dey's first, raw impulse to do something about the National Enquirer's effort to publicize the tragedy of actor/director Paul Michael Glaser and his family. Glaser and his wife, Elizabeth, who contracted the AIDS virus from a blood transfusion, tried to persuade the tabloid to kill a story about the exposure of their 1-year-old son, and the death of their 7-year-old daughter. When the tabloid insisted, the family released the story instead to the Los Angeles Times, whose account Dey read in a white heat of anger. The tabloids had been after Dey also, printing accounts of her insulting fellow "L.A. Law" star Jill Eikenberry -- "not one word of which was true." More seriously, they had chronicled her battle with alcoholism, apparently after talking to other alcoholics who had heard her speak at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that are supposed to be confidential. Hearing that the Times was doing a follow-up story on celebrities striking back at tabloids, Dey took the unusual step of volunteering an interview, after being assured the writer would not try to equate her complaints with the "devastation that happened to the Glasers." She recounted the stories about her alcoholism, thus revealing her problem for the first time to non-tabloid readers. She said the fear of further articles had forced her to stop attending AA meetings. Day says she hopes the message will get to tabloid buyers that "they really should be ashamed... . What happened to the Glasers was the breaking point for me. That is stepping over the line, guys, over the line." She remains very protective of her family and her privacy, declining to identify the neighborhood where she lives or giving many details about anyone close to her. But the foibles of her occasional companion, Grace Van Owen, are fair game, and she speaks of the sleek, often troubled prosecutor as if this was another life she was leading. Perhaps the most stunning moment of Dey's third season as Van Owen was the kiss she planted on Jimmy Smits, the show's current sex bomb, in a parking lot after the two characters had tested each other in court. The stunned look on the face of Smits's character matched the groans of shock and delight from millions of female viewers, and Dey said she was a little surprised herself when she saw it in the script. Her usually principled character was still involved with Kuzak, after all, and the two male characters were good friends. "What is this all about?" she asked the writers. "Are you going to do this and not follow through? Is this really part of Grace?" Bochco himself appeared to reassure her. "It is simply what is written there," he said. "Believe what is written. It is something she has always wanted to do. It's not really a sexual thing. It's not a desire for this man, it's just that she's always wanted to kiss him." With a wide smile, Dey said she decided "I loved the break in the character," while secure in the knowledge that the "L.A. Law" writers would never take her too far. "They believe strongly that people don't change and they're right, and I respect them for it, because it would be a hell of a lot more fun for them if Grace said, 'I'm going to go join the circus for a while. This is what I've always wanted to do.' " Dey's account of the end of the romance with Hamlin's character suggests relief in being back with Grace Van Owen again, away from the wearying juggling act of starring in and producing her own movie. As Grace, "I'm tired of being in a relationship that is not working," she says. "They'd write the scenes of when we were unhappy together and it was like {a low groan} I don't want to deal with this." So as the two characters did their farewell scene, "there was a release, because of the truth of those two characters, what was happening to us within those characters, the complacency, the taking for granted, there were so many problems in that relationship and they didn't have the tools to deal with it. "To be released from that is great. I saw it in Harry, and I know he saw it in me. That feeling of, 'Now all I have to think about is my work.' " She said she would miss working so often with Hamlin, "but you never know, I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere far down the line there's a reconciliation."