Everybody talks about "L.A. Law." But everbody watches "Matlock."

When it comes to courtroom drama, "Matlock" out-ranked "L.A." in the Nielsen ratings, a testimony to the broad appeal of its star, the friendly and familiar Andy Griffith.

The size and scope of that audience came as something of a surprise to the show's newcomer, Nancy Stafford.

"It's amazing to me the expanse of audience the show has, across all age ranges and economic standing," said Stafford. "At first I thought the audience would be middle-age and older.

"But I'm finding young fans love the show too. Many of them grew up with Andy, as I did. We feel he's family. There's also an ease about him -- he's easy to work with and easy to watch."

Last season, "Matlock" finished 16th in the Nielsen ratings, while "L.A. Law" closed in 22nd.

This season the old-shoe familiarity of Griffith and "Matlock" get a coat of polish with the addition of Stafford, playing Michelle Thomas, a new junior partner in Matlock's firm. She replaces Linda Purl, the female lead in the show's first season.

Stafford most recently starred in the short-lived "Sidekicks" and in "St. Elsewhere," where she played Joan Halloran, the very tough hospital executive and Mark Harmon's love interest.

In Michelle Thomas, Stafford said she feels she's found an ideal role -- a woman who's bright and beautiful but smart as well, without the limiting hard-nosed side of Halloran.

"The role is better than I anticipated," she said, with some half-dozen episodes of "Matlock" already in her briefcase. "Michelle Thomas is a very bright and together lawyer with a lot of wit -- she has good repartee with Matlock, and they respect each other.

"This woman has more dimension than any character I've played. Joan Halloran was very serious about her job, to the point of relaxing very little. She was always butting heads with men. Michelle Thomas is secure enough in herself that she can enjoy life more."

"Matlock" loyalists will meet Thomas in the show's season-opener at 8 p.m. on Sept. 22, a two-hour premiere set in London. As a romance fizzles, Thomas meets Matlock, who is abroad on a case, and by show's end she's decided to return to the United States and join his firm.

"Of all the characters I've played," said Stafford, "Michelle Thomas is the one I love most. There's a lot of Nancy in her and a lot of things in her I wish were more in Nancy."

Such as? "Her ability to, when the time is appropriate and it's necessary, articulate in a firm way and nail someone in a solid, nice way," said the carefully qualifying Stafford. She cited a script in which she perfectly puts down a womanizer. "She has a wonderful monologue -- not angry, not upset -- just very solid.

"She also thinks quickly on her feet. She can spin a wonderful yarn, too. At one point, she wheedles information by telling a whopper of a story. There's a lot of fun in this character. She enjoys Matlock -- and she's not afraid to laugh with him."

The show is not entirely new ground for Stafford. She has been a "Matlock" guest star, and she was a runner-up for Purl's role as Matlock's daughter. When it came time to recast the female lead, co-executive producer Fred Silverman called her agent. After reading for the part, she was in London in a matter of days.

Stafford, 33, started out in journalism and quickly moved into glamor. She earned a bachelors degree in journalism at the University of Florida, ran for the Miss Florida title and won the crown, ran for Miss America and won a runner-up's bouquet. Then came modeling and a segue into acting.

Now she's learning the fine points of the business at the feet of an acknowledged master. Griffith secured his niche as a television pioneer on "The Andy Griffith Show" in 1960. His show was the first -- and most would agree the best -- of a series of shows with rural settings. The Griffith show never finished lower than seventh in the Nielsens for any season, and when it went off the network in 1968, it was No. 1.

"He's incredible," said Stafford in summary fashion. "I was nervous coming to the show. You walk onto a soundstage with a legend, someone you grew up with. He's very supportive; we have wonderful communication on and off screen.

"He's involved with every aspect of the show. It's really his baby. He's a master at comedy and even gets involved in script rewrites. I've learned so much.

"After a 12-hour day, you usually run to your trailor and hide. With Andy, I find myself hanging around on stage, just watching him."

The homespun Griffith and his folksy Matlock even play well overseas. While they were filming the season-opener in London, Stafford recalled, a group of schoolgirls squealed with delight when they saw Griffith. "They called out, 'Oh, Mahtlock!' with their little accents," said Stafford. "He has women of all ages, three to sixty, wrapped around his finger."