Rue McClanahan knew from the outset that she'd probably be upstaged by 8-year-old Keshia Knight Pulliam when they set out to do "The Little Match Girl" (Monday on NBC).

Young Pulliam, better known as Rudy Huxtable on "The Cosby Show," gets the title role in a story loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale but set in New England during the 1920s.

She plays Molly, a homeless orphan who is peddling her matches on Christmas Eve when she meets playboy Neville Dutton (William Youmans), the younger son in a wealthy and powerful family, and is invited to the Dutton mansion.

There she learns that despite the facade of holiday fun and feasts, the family has a sad side: Haywood Dutton has just sold some land that will leave several families homeless, a move that his estranged son Joe (Jim Metzler), a newspaperman, plans to reveal in print.

Before she's done, Molly offers the Duttons the gift of reconciliation, managing to get the family to repair its damaged and unraveled relationships.

"It's mostly just a very vague resemblance to 'The Little Match Girl,'" noted McClanahan. "That's a very sad story: the little match girl freezes to death. Our little match girl is an angel from heaven -- and then she disappears. At the end, she's gone. It's a real fairytale."

McClanahan plays Frances, the wife of powerful and conservative Haywood Dutton (William Daniels of "St. Elsewhere"), whose disapproval of their son's wife -- "poor white trash from the other side of the tracks," McClanahan said -- has left a schism in the family.

"We made my character old-fashioned," explained McClanahan, "a woman who had grown up in the Victorian era and had retained that in her hairstyle and her manner and somewhat in the cut of her clothing, her whole demeanor."

McClanahan also invented a profile of her character to explain to herself how Frances Dutton came to be so cowed by her husband. "She's a nice woman and she's not a wimp. I found it very difficult to walk that middle ground, when you're not playing someone flamboyant. It's very difficult to play someone straight. I much prefer playing someone self-centered."

So in McClanahan's mind, Frances Dutton slips out occasionally to visit her son and daughter-in-law and grandson and to bring them Christmas gifts.

Creating a background to help understand one's character is something that stage-trained actors often do, she explained. "It's something I always do. When I started out {in television}, it wasn't common, but the New York stage-trained actor learns to do this ... In fact, on 'The Little Match Girl,' Hallie {Foote, who plays daughter-in-law Mary Margaret Dutton}, works that way."

"There's that kind of break in a family's fabric for people who are ostracized because of something that the father disapproved of," said McClanahan. There have been breaks in her own life -- she's been married five times -- but she said her only child, Mark, 29, a guitarist, lives not far from her in Southern California, and so do two of her four nieces and nephews.

And then Rue McClanahan's very name is testimony to family influence. She was known as Eddi-Rue until she was 21 and graduated from the University of Tulsa, about 200 miles from her hometown of Healdton, Okla. "When my mother was pregnant, my Aunt Winona talked my mother into making an agreement that they would name one another's first born. So Winona did: She named me after her brother {William Edwin} and my mother {Dreda Rheua-Nell}, and then a year and half later she had a daughter and my mother named her Earla Sue. When she was about 15, she dropped the 'Earla.'"

As a high school senior, McClanahan ventured to far-off Washington, D.C., to look at colleges. "I almost decided to go to Catholic U. My mother and I drove up that summer and looked it over, but I couldn't convince myself to go that far away from home when I was only 18."

She did well at Tulsa, graduating cum laude in 1956 and making the university's academic honorary -- the school had no chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at the time, she said. Then off to Pennsylvania to begin her career as an actress, debuting at the Erie Playhouse in 1957. She has worked ever since, winning an Obie for her off-Broadway role in "Who's Happy Now?" in 1970 and an Emmy this year as best lead actress in a comedy series.

She was in a field of five nominees that included "Golden Girls" co-stars Bea Arthur, with whom she had done the series "Maude" for six seasons, and Betty White. Both White and McClanahan appeared in the series "Mama's Family."

"Wasn't I lucky? I thought Bea was going to win. And Betty's got four Emmys -- she doesn't need any more." White, who plays Rose, another in the quartet of older women who share a Florida house, won in 1986. All three, plus Estelle Getty (Sophia), were up for Emmys that year; the show's writers won Emmys as well. "The Golden Girls" was named best comedy series both years.

"We've just got the best in the business," McClanahan said of the writers who have made her character, Blanche, one of the sassy women she likes to play.

"One thing I've asked them to do, and they have done, is tone down the serious sexual references. We've got a lot of mileage out of that. But I'm concerned about AIDS. And I don't want to condone promiscuousness. We're making it clear that Blanche is, a lot of time, just talk.

"In fact, in the show we're working on now, Blanche's daughter comes to see her -- she hasn't seen her in four years -- and she's quite overweight. Her daughter is thinking of getting married to a man who is extremely derogatory to her, because she thinks that's the best she can get. And it turns out that Blanche was once very overweight herself. So maybe that explains a lot."