HOLLYWOOD -- Catherine Hearne is one of America's actresses.

She's 5 feet 4 and weighs 98 pounds, has sandy hair and sea-blue eyes. By the lights of a big-time casting director, "she's an average-looking girl, and this town is filled with them." She is, according to her agent, "not your typical T&A beauty" -- "T&A" being, in this town, the anatomical equivalent of talent. With professional detachment, she describes herself as "a little off-center, a little offbeat." "Perky" might also be a useful word.

She has been doing the Hollywood struggle for the last 11 years.

"It's gone by so fast," Hearne says, perkily. "It's like 11 months."

At 33, she can no longer pass for an inge'nue, which is what she was when she starred in an episode of "James at 16," once a prime-time series on NBC. "The whole show was about me," Hearne recalls, with the hint of a Texas twang. "I played a girl from a small town who fell in love with James, but he was really mean and abused me. A real sad story." It was the high point of her career. "That was eight years ago." Actually, it was nine.

But Hearne will not be denied.

In the latest edition of the Academy Players Directory, Hollywood's Who's Who, she is listed with thousands of others under the category "female character." She seldom permits her thoughts to wander toward fame and fortune.

"I just want to make a decent living," she says. "I'm not bitter, not at all. But I'm tired. I've eaten a lot of beans and a lot of baked potatoes and a lot of lettuce." Even now, in a smoke-filled restaurant near the beach, she poises her fork over a baked potato. "My boyfriend has money and he takes me out to eat a lot. He's a business manager and accountant for a lot of successful actors. He basically pays for my food."

Her days and nights are perpetual worry -- about not being able to make her rent, not being able to eat, not being able to survive. "What am I going to do when I become a senior citizen? There'll be no pension. I think about that all the time." She adds, "My boyfriend's clients all go to see psychiatrists. I need one but I can't afford it."

She is helplessly besotted by the greasepaint and the crowd. Show business is her life.

"It's like a disease, and there's no cure," she says of the will to act. "It's the one thing that I feel like I do pretty well. When someone lets me do it -- and then I get paid for it, too -- it's the greatest feeling there is."

The Screen Actors Guild, evocatively acronymed SAG, claims 65,000 members nationwide, about half of them in Hollywood. In 1986, according to the latest figures, less than 1 percent earned more than $100,000. A mere 9 percent made more than $15,000, barely a decent living. The vast majority, 70 percent, earned less than $2,000. This is the group to which Cathy Hearne belongs.

"It's pretty depressing stuff," says Mark Locher, SAG's publicity director. "I would be hard-pressed to think of any other profession with worse odds."

Nonetheless, Hearne hopes to "break through."

"She will have a career similar to Sissy Spacek when she breaks through," says her agent, Pat Amaral. "What happens in this town, when one picture breaks through -- just one film -- when they can see that the person is really talented, then the other pictures come. I know people who didn't break through until they were in their thirties and forties. It happens all the time. She's tremendously talented, she's a warm, lovely girl. I compare her to Joanne Woodward."

"I know her very well," says Ron Stephenson, head casting director of Universal Television. "Catherine is a cute character actress. She's a nice actress. It's a crap shoot, you've got to be lucky, and so much depends on timing. I'm a firm believer in timing."

"My gut feeling," says Hearne, "is that it hasn't been my time yet."

To make do, she works odd jobs, lately as a receptionist in a beauty salon and as a secretary to an agent, and lives on and off in friends' apartments. She declared bankruptcy last year, after a brief and explosive marriage to another actor. Something like Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire," she is dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Her parents, who live in Highland Park, an affluent suburb of Dallas, have given her financial support, but less in the last year. Six months ago she sold off her inheritance of oil stocks to take care of $7,000 in credit card debts and keep her career alive.

"I think they'd still like me to pursue acting, but they want me to come back to Dallas and pursue it," Hearne says of her parents. "I've been really dealing with a lot of depression. That's one reason my parents wanted me to come home. They felt like I needed my family around me. They were worried about me emotionally -- that I was going to go over the edge."

"I feel that Cathy is determined and persistent and she knows what she wants," says her mother Katie. "Her struggle is one that I have felt daily. I believe very strongly that she will be discovered. She is not what you would type as a raving sex beauty. But Catherine Hearne is quality in her performance. This is something far greater than outward looks. But she has not been able to feed herself on her talent. Maybe she has not pushed herself enough. Maybe she has not met the right person."

"I honestly could not morally get to the point of saying, 'Honey, you just don't have it,' " says her father Erwin. "Because I think she does. If this is the direction she wants to go in, I have to encourage her. She's had her struggles, bless her heart. I think any normal father would worry about his little daughter. Showbiz is the pits. But she grew up with a strong Christian heritage. We pray for her constantly."

Hearne talks about herself with a mix of cockeyed optimism and cold-eyed realism.

"I don't think anybody would hire me to sell Reeboks. I'm not quite straight enough for that," she says of her diagnosed offbeatness. "Every agent I've ever had has told me that, and I've had seven agents. They always pick on my looks. 'It's your hair. Maybe you could just cut your hair.' 'Maybe you could pull your hair back.' 'I think you should perm your hair.' So, basically, I've had every hairdo you could possibly have. I cut my hair all off like Mia Farrow did. I've had it long, almost to my waist. I've permed it to where it was completely curled all over. I've had it straight as a board. I've had it right to my chin, in a pageboy. And although I'm a blond, because they told me I wasn't 'T&A' -- that blond hair didn't go with my looks -- I've even dyed it black ...

"There are some important basic things that it's taken me 11 years to figure out. When they say they want someone 'character' or 'offbeat,' they really mean they want the most glamorous offbeat. So you better go in looking glamorous. They can imagine you looking worse. I think it's hard for them to imagine you looking as good as you possibly can.

"It seems like every time I don't get a part, it always comes down to my looks ... I really want to be what everybody wants to look at. I really want to be beautiful. So I try really hard to please everybody. I really think that if you're gorgeous and you really have talent, they can't stop you."

She has toyed with the idea of cosmetic surgery.

"I got it in my head about eight months ago that I would start working if I had bigger tits," she says. "So I actually went to this plastic surgeon and I was going to have them done. Then a friend practically tied me up so I wouldn't go through with this operation. She gets out the Yellow Pages and looks up Frederick's of Hollywood. She says, 'Just get a fake bra, so at least you'll know what you'll look like.'

"So I went to Frederick's of Hollywood, I told them exactly the problem, and they found me a bra -- a double-padded inflatable one. I wore it on my last interview and I got the job. They were staring at my tits the whole time because they thought they were real."

She has also considered other alterations.

"A friend of mine from New York came into town and told me she thought I should have my nose done because it wasn't narrow enough. I've always been worried about my nose. And she also said I needed to have my teeth capped. Because I have a little bit of an overbite, and I have these white spots on my teeth ...

"I think plastic surgery is fine. If there's anything you can do to get that job, other than being morally horrible, and I'm sure some people would stab their mother in the back for a job, you do it. That's Hollywood. An actor has no power, no control whatsoever. You're at the mercy of everybody else. The only power an actor has is that you can control your own body."

Hearne dates her addiction to acting to her first role, at age 6, as an angel in a school play. She remembers herself as a shy little girl with a flair for fantasy.

"I had every kind of Barbie doll you could imagine," she recalls, "and all this furniture and all these clothes and I would make up these little plays and stories. And I would spend hours and hours in my room just acting out characters and stuff with my dolls. I didn't tell anybody I wanted to act, not even my parents. I think because I was afraid of their reaction. I was embarrassed."

As she grew older, she became more confident, acting in junior high school shows and in productions of the First Baptist Church. Her role models were such as Hayley Mills, Mia Farrow, Sally Field, Patty Duke. "My favorite things were 'The Patty Duke Show' and 'Gidget,' " she says.

After junior college in Texas, she studied drama at Cal State Northridge in the San Fernando Valley. She went on to spend a year in England, attending the Webber Douglas Academy in London -- affiliated, she says, with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts -- and later in Los Angeles took a succession of acting classes, which she can no longer afford.

She remembers one of her teachers as "a real yeller and screaming type, who got very angry when you didn't do what he wanted you to. I think basically it was more his psychiatry session than an acting class, but it was good for me, in a way. It made me work harder because I was so scared of him yelling at me."

Her first professional part was as a barmaid, feeding sarsaparilla to a baby camel in a movie called "Hawmps!" produced by the people who made the "Benji" movies. The 30-second appearance got her into the Screen Actors Guild -- "a major steppingstone," she says -- and also got her an agent. She was all of 19, and apparently well on her way.

Soon after leaving college with a degree in fine arts, she obtained the "James at 16" part, but afterward her career unaccountably stalled. She has done a bit of this and that, mostly Equity waiver productions, in which the actors work for free. On her re'sume', she lists such performances as Ida in "Rags to Riches," Lasca in "Automobile Graveyard," and Miranda in "You're Always Crying, Miranda." In exchange for the use of an apartment for the run of the production, she acted in "On Stilts."

There have also been roles on television's "Cagney & Lacey," "Barnaby Jones," "General Hospital" and "Days of Our Lives." Her most recent paying job was in an as-yet-unscheduled installment of "Divorce Court." "I'm the wife of a reporter, a journalist like yourself, who turns out to be a bigamist," she explains. "Meanwhile, I've gone very religious -- turned into a religious fanatic. I think I was cast very well. I have 10 pages of monologue. At least I'll have some recent tape to show for it." "Recent tape" is what every aspiring star needs.

Last March, she had a walk-on in the CBS sitcom "Designing Women," playing a pregnant relative of one of the principals. "Hi, I'm Velma," she was supposed to have said, but the line was cut by the time the episode aired.

And she is ready to play a French maid in a movie titled "Waldo," to be filmed in Mississippi if the producers can raise the money. The plot, which may have peculiar resonance in the dog-eat-dog world of professional entertainment, concerns a pig that inherits a sausage factory.

"Being an actor is like chocolate," says "Waldo's" designated director, Alvy Moore. "If you like it, it's awful hard not to eat it." Adds Moore, a journeyman actor himself, "Nobody put a gun to my head and said, 'You must do this or we're putting you in a camp.' I did this of my own volition."

In the meantime, Hearne religiously reads the trades, such as Variety and Dramalogue, spends what little money she can save on union dues, publicity photos and wardrobe, and checks in regularly with Equity Hot Line for news of cattle calls. During a recent six-month period, she had only two auditions. At one, for a speaking part, she fought her way through a crowd of competitors, SRO in a casting director's office, only to be told after several hours' wait to sing her lines.

"Maybe they'd like me to stand on my head, too," she thought.

It has taken 11 years, but Hearne believes she has finally grasped the nature of the beast.

"It's like when you're in high school," she says. "It's a popularity contest. Say you're a little wallflower and all of a sudden, the captain of the football team is attracted to you and asks you out on a date and he really likes you and you become his girlfriend. Then I bet all the other football players would like you, too. And you would suddenly be in the In Crowd. That's what it's like in Hollywood."

She admits to being jealous of her more successful friends. "Oh, definitely! It's a very bad habit of mine, always comparing myself to other people, male or female -- when they get a job, it's always, 'Why am I not doing that?' ...

"I got a flier in the mail from a minister the other day, an article on what you can do to overcome depression. It explained it in a way that I'd never looked at it before, brought up the fact that you shouldn't compare your level of success to another person's. I really identified with what he said, and I've been a lot happier in the last two weeks because of that.

"But in the last year I've really been miserable, and I've tried to think of something else I could do."

Indeed, she nearly became a flight attendant for American Airlines -- "that was going to be my escape" -- but, after several interviews, didn't make the final cut. "That was devastating." She remembers the day she received the rejection letter as among the most disorienting of her life, at once profoundly depressing and strangely exhilarating. In other words, a typical day in the Dream Factory.

On the verge of tears, she phoned Equity Hot Line and learned of an open call for a Lillian Hellman play at the Los Angeles Theater Center. She got into her car and sped downtown, knowing that she had only two hours. One block from the theater, in a seedy neighborhood of ne'er-do-wells, her brakes went out. As car horns blared, she somehow managed to coast into a fire lane and turn the engine off. "I'm thinking, 'I can't believe this. I'm scared to death to go to the audition because I know they're going to tow my car. And if I go, I'm not going to get out until dark, I'm going to be in downtown L.A., I won't have a car, it's going to be really dangerous -- I've got to get to a phone.' "

After a half-hour search, she found two pay phones in the basement of a bar. Both were occupied, one by a man conversing in Spanish, the other by a man in frantic dialogue punctuated by the refrain, "It's not my baby." After waiting about 10 minutes, Hearne importuned the English-speaker, "Please, this is an emergency!" "Honey," came the reply, "this is an emergency, too." Finally he rang off and she reached the Triple A. At length a tow truck arrived at the curb where her car was miraculously still parked.

Welling up with self-pity -- "like I wanted to kill myself" -- she climbed into the truck, thinking that not only had she missed the audition, but it was going to cost her $80. Suddenly she noticed that the driver, a dark young man who spoke broken English, was sniffling. Then a single tear slid down his cheek. "Are you okay?" she asked. It turned out that the man, an Iranian, had just been told that his sister in Tehran would not be allowed to join him in the United States. He was alone and penniless in a strange land, badly treated by Americans, holding down a grueling job with no future. "Suddenly, I was so happy," Hearne recalls, "because the only problem I had was that I didn't make it to this audition."

Her happiness moved to anger. She decided she would storm into her agent's office and declare that she wasn't going to take it anymore, that she was ready to quit. Her car repaired, she did just that. But wouldn't you know it, her agent had a job for her -- the small part on "Designing Women." Then, the next day, she was called to audition for the role in "Waldo," the part of a sexy French maid -- which she snagged with the aid of her inflatable bra.

"I wouldn't want to be a woman in this business," says Moore, the aspiring director. "One of the things I tell young people is that when you come out to this town and go to interviews, looking as good as you can look, be prepared to run around the desk a little bit. Everybody in this town is going to start hitting on you. I'm not saying this to panic people. I'm just saying it to prepare them."

Not so, says casting director Stephenson. "I've got a couch right in front of me," he says. "I've done nothing but sit on it for the last 10 years."

Joe Camp, the producer-director of the "Benji" movies, is a friend of Hearne's father and hired her long ago to feed the sarsaparilla to the camel. "She was great," he recalls. "I was quite surprised, being a friend-of-the-family type. She was always on the money."

Camp, who hates Hollywood and lives in Texas, has occasionally mused about Hearne's travails. "The commercial end of this business always tends to lean toward the least line of resistance," he says. "If someone is gorgeous and has sex appeal, the producers in this town gravitate in that direction on the theory that they'll have an easier line to success. They'll sit around a table and say, 'Why don't we get Burt Reynolds and three of the sexiest girls in Hollywood,' and everyone nods. Everyone likes to categorize and compartmentalize. It's easy to lose perspective.

"In Cathy's case the odds are better than most. She's founded in something that's important -- she's good at her craft. What you look for is the cracks in the armor. They're always there. It's just a matter of finding them. But I've always felt like it's something of a shame that as good as she is, she's not moving any faster."

Then why doesn't Camp give Hearne another part?

"If she could bark, it would be great," he says with a hollow laugh. "Maybe she should throw away her falsies and get a muzzle."

"No, I don't think so," Hearne replies. You do draw the line some place."