In his first season on ABC, irascible sportswriter "Slap" Maxwell ditched his former wife at their re-marriage ceremony and never did the honorable thing for Judy, the Ledger secretary he bedded. Frankly, he was coming across as a heel with no redemption in sight.

But what really bothered ABC was that the crowd that tuned in on Wednesdays to see sensitive John Ritter on "Hooperman" at 9 was turning off -- or being turned off by -- Dabney Coleman on "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" at 9:30. On Feb. 3, for example, a repeat episode of "Hooperman" put the show in 34th place for the week, but a fresh episode of "'Slap' Maxwell" could do no better than 49th.

Enter Shirley Jones, who at 18 sang the role of Laurey in the film version of "Oklahoma" and in her mid-30s played singing mom on ABC's "The Partridge Family." Could she, as Kitty Noland, help heal Slap Maxwell's middle-aged discontent and boost the ratings?

Apparently she did. After Jones' first appearance, on Feb. 3, "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" rose from a rating of 11.0 on Jan. 27 to 13.8.

"They wanted to try something else," said Jones. "They felt -- and still feel, I guess -- that it's not a women's show because of what he does for a living and because he's a man. They wanted to try to soften him a little, to show a more sentimental side, a lighter side, a sweeter side.

"I'm the 'old girl friend' in every respect," she laughed. Jones will be 53 in March -- "aging gracefully, I hope."

Jones appears in all the February episodes and one in March as Maxwell's former hometown love. Judy Ralston (Megan Gallagher) is left to carry on her relationship with copy boy Charlie Wilson (Bill Calvert).

Whether Jones will appear on future episodes depends on the crucial ratings, which largely will also determine whether producer Jay Tarses' creation gets another season.

"They're pleased with what they see," said Jones. "I had a wonderful time. I just loved Dabney Coleman. We'd met briefly, but didn't really know each other. We both had a mutual admiration society. He's so different and exciting, but he isn't the easiest person to get to know. He's a very private person. He isn't thrilled with newspaper people and autograph seekers, so there's a little bit of that tension that runs through.

"I find him fascinating. He's extremely attractive from a woman's angle ... One of the reasons is he's so uncatchable -- he has that mysterious quality. The first day I came home and said, 'Wow, what an attractive man!' My husband said, 'Listen, maybe I don't want you to be working with him' ...

"He's so great to work with, from my point of view. The scenes we have together, although they're pretty well written, he makes so much better. It's like we've known each other forever. The very first scene is a big love scene -- for a half-hour sitcom, it's pretty racy. After they saw that first scene, everybody called me and said, 'Oh, the chemistry' ..."

The "big love scene" turned out to be a kiss and some gentle persuasion by Kitty that ended with the two heading upstairs for the night. This time it was Slap who protested briefly that the townsfolk would talk. Kitty assured him that even small-town Texans of the '80s wouldn't care.

Whether Jones stays with "'Slap' Maxwell" or not, she's gearing up her career again now that her three sons are grown. Last June she appeared in "There Were Times, Dear," which she called "a lovely thing on PBS about Alzheimer's, of which I was very proud."

In March she's scheduled to appear in PBS' "It's a Grand Night," a "musical with a lot of opera," and to begin a talk show with her husband, Marty Ingels, on the new cable service You. Jones described the service as "dedicated to self-improvement. Our show is called 'Happily Ever After' and it deals with marriage and family and just a little bit of everything."

Hosting a talk show is a departure for Jones. "First of all, I didn't think I was very good at it, and second, I didn't think I'd want to work with Marty because he's such a take-over guy." But she has concluded that their personalities mesh well in the talk-show format, and she likes the shooting schedule that requires only three or four days a month.

Shirley Jones, an angelic-looking blonde soprano from Smithton, Pa., caught the nation's eye -- and ear -- in 1955 when she was 18 and starred as Laurey in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" with Gordon MacRae. After finishing the film, she continued the role in a troupe that was sent to Europe by the State Department. Also in the cast was actor-singer Jack Cassidy, whom she married in 1956. (They were separated in 1972 and divorced in 1975, and he died in an apartment fire the next year.)

She and MacRae appeared in another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "Carousel," in 1956, and four years later she won an Oscar as best supporting actress for her dramatic role in "Elmer Gantry" (1960). Burt Lancaster, who played the title role, won the Academy Award as best actor and director Richard Brooks won for his screenplay, based on Sinclair Lewis' novel. In 1961, Jones appeared as Marian the librarian in Meredith Willson's "The Music Man" with Robert Preston.

During most of the '60s, Jones spent her time bringing up her sons Shaun, Patrick and Ryan and making a series of lesser movies.

In 1970 she and stepson David Cassidy began a four-year run on ABC's "The Partridge Family." Jones played the widowed mother of a brood of youngsters who traveled around in a wildly painted schoolbus performing as a singing group. The series, loosely based on the experiences of the singing Cowsills family, spawned several hits including "I Think I Love You," which sold 4 million singles. Only Jones and Cassidy sang on the records, which were done by studio musicians, but David Cassidy became a heartthrob of young teen-age girls.

Among the alumni of "The Partridge Family," Jones, Cassidy and Susan Dey have continued their acting careers. Cassidy recently returned from London where he played the lead in the rock musical "Time." Dey (Laurie Partridge) plays Grace Van Owen on NBC's "L.A. Law." Of the others, Jones said, Danny Bonaduce (Danny Partridge) has a sushi restaurant in the Los Angeles area; Suzanne Crough, who played youngest daughter Tracy, "is married and a housewife," and David Madden (Reuben Kinkaid) "is doing commercials."

Jones' son Shaun, who appeared during the 1977-78 season as Joe Hardy in ABC's "The Hardy Boys Mysteries," also became a teen-age singing hit with a number-one record, "Da Do Ron Ron." Today, at 29, he is the father of Jones' grandchildren, Caitlin, 6, and Jake, 3. Last week he appeared on an episode of "Matlock," and is currently in Canada doing an "Alfred Hitchcock" episode.

Patrick Cassidy, 26, appeared as Hippolyte Charles in ABC's "Napoleon and Josephine" miniseries last November. And Ryan, 21, is "just making his way. He's going to acting class, selling Hondas and modeling. He's extraordinary to look at," said his mother, "but I think he's kind of too laid back, too normal."