Cloris Leachman believes in being in charge of what she's doing.

So when you see Danielle Steel's "Fine Things" (Tuesday at 8 on NBC), you should know that the role of Ruth Fine, an archetypal Jewish mother, is funnier than the script made her, closer to the character Steel created, largely because Leachman herself insisted.

"We got the juice back in from the book," she said. "It's a marvelous, juicy, funny role. It's hard not to fall into the traps of cliche'. My part is very cliche'ed. I say, 'So, you don't have time to call your mother,' and I'm playing Solitaire, and the game is more important than the words. You have to understand the mentality of somebody in order to have a line work here or there."

Jack Warner, who spotted her potential early in her career, reportedly once called Leachman "the world's finest actress."

Certainly she knows what she wants.

"It's I, Cloris, who have a standard of excellence and people know that about me, and so they know that they will get something for their money," she said. "And I know I have a promise to bring that; to ask, what's the best we can do?

"So I had a meeting with them {director Tom Moore and producer Douglas S. Cramer} and I told them I felt that some of the juice was gone. I read them a whole scene from the book and had notes and pages and was prepared, so they agreed; they said, 'If you think you can do it, without taking any more time about it.' So you work within the constraints. I'm grateful to the director for not saying 'print' before we had it."

While executive Bernie Fine (D.W. Moffett) juggles work and fatherhood after his wife (Tracy Pollan) dies of cancer, his mother steps in, explained Leachman, "to save the family. There's a lot of devastation.

"I'm the comedy relief," she said. "Even Danielle Steel says that. I asked her who her model was for Mrs. Fine -- I launched myself into this role like a heat-seeking missile -- and she said just everyone. So I drew from lots of people I'd known."

Among them, when she was growing up in Des Moines the eldest of three sisters, was her piano teacher, a woman Leachman described as interested and supportive, someone with whom "I could just chat with at my lesson. And my mother, too. My mother never got mad at me, but she said one time when I was a teenager, 'Well, now, I thought you were smarter than that ...' Think of it! She never had to say another thing. But she also meant that she thought I was smart."

Leachman, 60, has an Oscar as best supporting actress from Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 film "The Last Picture Show" and Emmys from her appearances in 1974 and 1975 on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." This year she appears in two theatrical movies, "Texasville," the "Picture Show" sequel, and "The Troll of Central Park," in which she sings "a rock 'n' roll sort of song."

Leachman's resume includes 30 films, beginning with "Kiss Me Deadly" in 1955; 20 stage appearances going back to "Sundown Beach" in 1948; 20 TV movies or miniseries, 14 TV specials and 79 series, from "Adam-12" to "Zane Grey Theater" ("Philco TV Playhouse" in 1950 is the earliest).

And those listings don't include her radio show career, which began at age 11; her talk show for women on KRNT-KSO in her mid-teens; the summer production of "Cradle Song" that won her scholarships to Northwestern University (she was named Best Actress as a sophomore), her titles as Miss WGN (Chicago radio) and Miss Chicago, and her appearance as one of five Miss America finalists in 1946. Nor does it include her selection by Elia Kazan to the original Actors Studio in 1947 and her Daniel Blum Theater World Award as a promising personality of 1950.

Yet, she said, "there were 15 years when I wasn't away from home for more than three days at a time," rearing four sons and a daughter by George Englund. Their marriage lasted 26 years. Her youngest son, Morgan, plays Dylan on CBS' daytime drama "Guiding Light,"

"I think you create your life yourself, you make your fortune," she reflected. "If you're not in charge of your life, then you're not in charge of anything. You have decisions and choices to make. And you have to know that you have something that only you can provide. That's a decision you make when you're a child. You have to decide that you have value."