Lynda Carter at 54 is obviously not the same Lynda Carter of 24, when she first appeared as TV's "Wonder Woman." But sitting here in the living room of her Potomac mansion, she smiles and suddenly we time-warp back to those golden lasso and tiara days of yore.
Although we're not sure that Wonder Woman was ever spotted puffing on a Virginia Slims -- a pack of which Carter just slipped out of her jeans pocket and tucked in a drawer. (A cigarette box nearby, engraved with "Lynda and Robert" and the couple's wedding date, is used for guests, Carter explains.)
Press her on the habit (only one cig, a couple puffs a day, she says) and it's one of those rare times when her warm, upbeat manner takes on a defensive edge, her Maybelline smile fading. So we move on.
And as we talk, there's a surprising conviction, an earnestness to her tone when she compares herself to that famous TV character, as though Wonder Woman is, well, real. Take this moment, for example, when she's explaining how her role in the new superhero movie "Sky High" pays homage to her Wonder Woman past:
"I don't do exploitative Wonder Woman things. I have been careful with her. I like her, and I think she's fantastic for women, and I think she's fantastic for the gay community, and she was great for young guys seeing a beautiful, strong woman."
To understand Wonder Woman, says Carter, is to understand part of herself.
"I don't blend in at all," despite more than two decades as a Washingtonian, she notes. "But I've become kind of oblivious to it. I don't travel with an entourage -- I just do my thing. It's kind of like Wonder Woman. She doesn't think she's all that. It's other people that do."
We realize we need to ask her about a few things -- her presence in two movies currently in theaters, the stressful days when her husband, Robert A. Altman, was embroiled in the BCCI banking scandal, and her struggles with alcoholism -- but at the moment we're drawn to the display cabinet in the next room with the superhero accessories from the 1970s television series. There's that tiara, the two pairs of "bulletproof" bracelets and, yes, the golden lasso.
Carter has the costume, too -- the skimpy star-spangled blue shorts and red bustier emblazoned with a golden eagle that accentuated her cleavage. But displaying the costume, she says, would just be a bit too much.
"Maybe when I'm really old," she says. "In another five years."
Carter clearly has a few good years left in her, and a self-deprecating tone marks many of her reflections. She is "kind of shocked" at the level of interest in her since last month's release of "Sky High" and yesterday's opening of "The Dukes of Hazzard," which was directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, who also worked with Carter in the 2001 comedy "Super Troopers."
She recently landed appearances on "Law & Order: SVU" and "Law & Order" as a character whose story line crosses between the two series. She goes to New York next week to shoot the latter, in which she plays the mother of a con artist. And "20/20" promoted its interview last week with her as one in which she would reveal her secret (alcoholism), something that she had actually done on Larry King's show in 2002.
Carter's family -- Altman and their two teenagers -- is just back with her from a whirlwind trip to Hollywood for the premieres of "Sky High," in which she plays a principal at a superhero school, and "The Dukes of Hazzard," which she says was supposed to feature her as Boss Hogg and Uncle Jesse's love interest. In the final cut, she's just a family friend who helps the Duke boys escape the Boss.
At one point during the interview, 14-year-old Jessica walks into the room in a groggy haze.
"Hi, honey," Carter greets her daughter with a chipper tone.
"Hi," replies Jessica. "I'm still on California time. I just woke up at 2 o'clock."
"We're pooped," says Carter before sending Jessica away with an admonishment to make a phone call about school sports, a matter she has been putting off. (If the concept of Wonder Woman as a soccer mom is troubling, take heart: "I have people helping me do soccer-mom stuff," she says.)
"As my children get older and these things come my way, it's exciting," says Carter. "And I've been able to share it with my family. The first time around, I wasn't able to share it with them -- I didn't have them." She says that "having them go to these premieres with me and tell me that they are proud of me is pretty cool."
The Arizona native's rise to stardom began with her victory in the 1972 Miss World USA pageant, followed by her debut as Wonder Woman in a 1975 TV special. The series began on ABC the following year and ran for one season before moving to CBS until cancellation in 1979.
Carter's first marriage to her former manager, Ron Samuels, ended in divorce in 1982. She started dating Altman later that same year after business travel brought them together in Memphis, where Maybelline cosmetics had its headquarters at the time. (Carter was a longtime company pitchwoman; Altman was doing legal work for Maybelline's corporate parent.) Carter settled in Washington after the pair wed in 1984.
The choice to give up her L.A. lifestyle came easily to Carter. "It never really felt like I had a lot of substance in my life," she says. "I had broken up with my former husband and I kind of looked around. I didn't have a lot of friends. I had become isolated by fame. . . . I longed for a family and some substantive relationships. Fame is a vapor. You can't grab hold of it."
Carter pursued a singing career, primarily as a casino headliner, until the birth of son Jamie in 1988. She also maintained a small-screen presence after "Wonder Woman" with variety show specials, two short-lived series (1984's "Partners in Crime" with Loni Anderson and 1994's syndicated "Hawkeye"), and more than a dozen made-for-TV movies in the '80s and '90s.
Carter's most challenging roles, though, came in the real world. In 1992, Altman and Democratic presidential adviser Clark M. Clifford -- law partners who also ran First American Bankshares -- were indicted on charges of fraud and lying to banking regulators about First American's illegal ownership by the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, or BCCI, a shadowy global institution. Altman endured a five-month trial in 1993, with Carter supporting him in the courtroom throughout, before being acquitted of all criminal charges. (Charges against Clifford, who died in 1998, were dropped because of his age and ill health.)
"Nothing can trump that trial," Carter says. ". . . It was hard on me, hard on the family -- very difficult for all of us. But we weathered the storm, and we are closer and better and have a keener sense of what is valuable in life."
Altman, 58, who is president and CEO of ZeniMax Media, an interactive media company in Rockville, says, "I can't even imagine what Lynda must have felt when I faced all those legal problems. It was a very frightening time for her . . . but she was an amazing, courageous person.
"There was never a day of, 'How did you get us into this mess?' Similarly, when she had her personal trials -- it's not much fun, but you go through it together."
Though Carter's alcoholism began during her troubled first marriage, it spiraled out of control after the stress of the BCCI scandal.
"There were long periods -- years, in fact -- where I didn't drink anything," says Carter. "You keep thinking if you can stop, you're okay." She and Altman sat down in 1997 and confronted the issue, concluding that treatment in Father Martin's Ashley, a rehabilitation facility in Maryland, was the best option for her.
"My husband was a saint," Carter says. "I was there for him, and he was there for me, and we love each other."
Though sober for eight years, Carter did not discuss her alcoholism publicly until that appearance three years ago on CNN's "Larry King Live." "I wanted my time," she says. "I didn't want to be a poster child for AA or recovery. I'm not defined by it."
Nor does she define herself as a Washington society figure, despite the charitable and political fundraising activities she and Altman have pursued throughout their marriage, including a $25,000-per-couple dinner they hosted at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1999 to benefit the Democratic National Committee.
"What do I want to be a social doyenne for?" says Carter. "My family takes up so much time. I just don't go out as much. I don't really want to. Another rubber chicken dinner doesn't mean much to me."
But the role she really doesn't mind being defined by is the one she'll probably always be best known for: ah, Wonder Woman:
"It's much easier to embrace than to resist -- and what's not to like?"
Andrew Gunn, the producer of "Sky High," says his memories of "Wonder Woman" made Carter the top choice to play Principal Powers in his film. "I remember watching 'Wonder Woman' as a kid," says Gunn, 37. "But I had no idea of the extent of her status as an icon. These big burly crew members were turning into teenage boys at the sight of her.
"They'd be like, 'You don't understand. I had her poster on my wall when I was growing up.' It's very funny -- just how big a name she is and how much they identify with her."
And what about the prospect of a "Wonder Woman" movie, now in development, with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator Joss Whedon writing and directing?
"I'm just hoping that it's right," says Carter. "And I'm hoping that the girl who does it is fantastic and embraced and loved and all the rest of it. I hope she's warm and wonderful and knocks 'em dead. I think it's time. I think it's good there's a new Wonder Woman."
Gunn says it won't be an enviable position: "The poor actress who takes the part has to go in knowing she'll be compared. People could say, 'She's good, but she ain't no Lynda Carter.' "