STARTS SEPTEMBER 25 ABC 9-10pm
Alfre Woodard was busy exercising on her home treadmill last spring when she realized just how much her life was about to change. Only 24 hours after agreeing to play the enigmatic Betty Applewhite on Desperate Housewives, Woodard watched in disbelief as the TV news crawl reported that she was about to become the newest resident of Wisteria Lane. ''Then I started getting calls from foreign press. 'This is so-and-so from the Daily Mirror. You need to call your high school and tell them to release your yearbook photo to us. We're not bad people!' And I thought, This is just nuts. I graduated in 1970, and now there is something important about my yearbook photo, at this point in my career?''
There absolutely is if you're signing on to the most scrutinized series on TV, one that's vying for 15 Emmys, including best comedy. Briefly introduced at the end of last season as Housewives' new neighbor, Woodard, 52, joins the cast full-time this season as a single mom of 18-year-old Matthew (newcomer Mehcad Brooks) whose arrival is shrouded in secrecy. ''I knew at some point we'd have a new mystery take over and become the focal point, though I never anticipated the lead would be African-American,'' says creator- executive producer Marc Cherry. ''We just want really good actors, and Alfre seems like she'd be a good neighbor. She has a sweet face and a lovely speaking voice, yet there is so much behind those eyes.''
Perhaps that's because Woodard had a secret of her own: She had never watched the show. When the busy L.A. mom (her kids Duncan and Mavis are 12 and 14) and actor (she recently wrapped production opposite Antonio Banderas for Take the Lead and will guest-star in the first two episodes of NBC's new drama Inconceivable this fall) got a surprise call from Cherry last April asking her to join the series, her friends filled her in on what she'd been missing. And still, she had to agree to the part without seeing a word of dialogue all she knew was that Betty is a former concert pianist who earns her keep by teaching piano. ''Alfre had to agree to play her without a script because we were so behind at the end of the season,'' says Cherry. ''I hadn't written any stuff for her yet!''
In fact, Woodard and Brooks didn't learn the family secret until their first day on the job last season. ''My mouth just hit the ground,'' Woodard recalls. ''I think people will be a little horrified, which will make them giggle.'' Adds the 24-year-old Brooks, ''It's nothing you've ever seen, nothing you've ever heard of, and it's nothing you want to hear of in real life, truthfully.''
Not that Brooks and Woodard have any plans to share. Even the fellow Housewives have no idea what is going on behind the Applewhites' front door. ''I haven't a clue, though I couldn't figure out last season's secret, either,'' admits Marcia Cross (Bree). ''This one seems even wackier and more offbeat.''
''My husband doesn't even know the secret!'' exclaims Woodard, who is used to keeping mum on plot developments after spending two years on St. Elsewhere. ''What's so funny is how people are already starting to speculate. People come up with much more bizarre and outrageous and interesting things.''