It's one week after the death of Princess Diana, and that's the first subject that comes up when Sherry Stringfield arrives for lunch at an outdoor café in New York's Greenwich Village. ''I got so many messages on my machine the day after she died,'' says Stringfield, 30, who stunned Hollywood when she quit her plum (and twice Emmy-nominated) role as Dr. Susan Lewis on ER last year to return to New York and spend more time with her boyfriend. ''All these people called and it was like they finally got it. They understood why I left. It wasn't just about a guy. My priest back in Texas called and said, 'You've been on my mind all day.' You know, people can get certain good things out of fame, but until it killed a princess nobody ever talked about how bad it can be.''
Stringfield is no princess she dives into her pasta with gusto, wisecracking, dishing, rolling her eyes but she's led a fairy-tale life as an actress. She's landed (and then walked away from) not one, not two, but three high-profile though ultimately unfulfilling acting gigs, starting with a leading role on the CBS soap Guiding Light, which she nabbed just one week after graduating from college in 1989. She ditched the soap in 1992 to travel in Europe. When she returned to the States in 1993, she nailed her first prime-time TV audition: a part on NYPD Blue. She left Blue after one season because she felt her character David Caruso's bitter ex-wife had run its course. (''I loved David, though,'' she says. ''He was so protective of me!'') But it was when she left ER in November 1996 after less than two years that people officially decided Stringfield was ... well, nuts. Leave the hottest show on TV for some investment banker in New York? You couldn't help but think that perhaps Stringfield belonged in a far more padded part of the hospital than the emergency room.
It was a little scary,'' says Stringfield of her decision to leave ER and move back to New York, where she's now teaching acting at her alma mater, Purchase College, SUNY, and doing commercial voice-overs. ''People I knew really well were taking my arm and looking deep in my eyes with the whole tilted-head thing, you know, saying 'We're worried about you.' Puh-leeze. It's like when you walk away from a really wonderful job like that, you start messing with everyone's priorities. It's like you're dissing them.''
And, as Stringfield discovered, they have no qualms about dissing back. A few months ago, when it got out that she and her boyfriend, Odell Lambroza, had broken up, a friend called from L.A. ''She tells me, 'You and Andrew Cunanan were the two top stories on the news tonight.''' Stringfield throws her head back and laughs. ''That's pretty much how Los Angeles views me I'm on a par with serial killers.''
David Milch, the executive producer of NYPD Blue who hired Stringfield and then graciously released her in 1994 when she asked to leave agrees that Stringfield's departure hit Hollywood where it lives. ''Everyone has to deal in to this work-obsessed environment,'' he says. ''If you don't, people don't like it. Sherry's situation reminds me of the tulip craze in Holland in the 17th century. There was this collective decision that tulips were the greatest thing in the world. Sherry is like someone who says, 'They're just tulips,' and it p----- people off."