Amy Steel was all set to play Nan Davis. She'd done as much homework as she could in nine days -- she'd worked out to increase her upper body strength and she'd practiced getting around in a wheelchair. Then it was off to Ohio to meet the young woman she was to portray.

"Nan and her boyfriend picked me up at the airport," recalled Steel. "We sort of checked each other out. I think she wondered if I'd look like a movie star -- come off the airplane waving a long cigarette holder with a feather boa wrapped around my shoulders."

What Davis found was a 24-year-old actress whose previous credits included two short-lived TV series and "Friday the 13th, Part II" ("I played a victim, but one who was strong enough to wield a hatchet!").

And Steel met a woman r own age who had been tomboyish and athletic as a girl and was now an opinionated young woman, witty and very shy.

And both of them found a friend.

"We have a good relationship," said Steel. "We don't fret if we don't talk for a month. The filming ended last May, and we've seen each other two or three times since then. We get on the phone and it's as if we've not been out of touch at all."

The friendship came easily; intimate friendship did not. And Steel suggested that the barrier between the two was built by Davis' injury. "There are parts of her that are closed off," said Steel, "parts of her that she doesn't want others to be part of . . . You can't overlook that there is real hurt there."

And hope. Which is largely what Nan Davis' story, entitled "First Steps," is all about. "There are so many steps to be worked on," said Steel. Even if the bioengineering depicted in the film and related scientific-medical research pans out, "people have to be prepared," said Steel. "Their bones, muscles and cardiovascular systems all deteriorate" after prolonged periods of wheelchair confinement. If they were suddenly able to stand erect, she added, "they would pass out."

"First Steps" spans a four-year period beginning in 1978 and deals with Davis' ordeal and the work of Dr. Jerrold Petrofsky (Judd Hirsch). The two story lines are tied together when Davis is injured in a car accident just as she's about to be graduated from high school. The film ends with Davis' taking 10 steps to accept her college diploma. An epilog describes Petrofsky's continuing work.

For Steel, "First Steps" is a second TV movie -- her first was "Women of San Quentin." Originally from Westchester, Penn., she ventured to New York six years ago and modeled for TV and print commercials. Then it was off to Hollywood where she appeared in "The Powers of Matthew Star" TV series. "For Love and Honor" followed.

Then she headed back East, stopping in Chicago for the filming of "First Steps." "I wanted to do something that meant something to me," she said, "rather than just play the same 'strong girlfriend' role."

Now she's back in New York, studying acting. She was scheduled to open six days ago in an off-Broadway play. "It's called 'Walk the Dog, Willie,'

"The girl I play is nuts. She's totally dedicated to someone you believe is dead." Different, to be sure, but a role to grow with. "I wanted to take some steps in my career," she said. "I feel I'm making progress."