Last spring, when Wendie Jo Sperber was offered the leading role in Babes, Fox's new Thursday-night sitcom about three overweight sisters sharing a one- room New York City apartment, she wasn't really sure she wanted the job.
''It was the whole weight issue,'' she says, sitting barefoot on her dressing room couch, her legs pulled up beneath her. ''I've always been lucky enough to play roles where they weren't interested in what I looked like. I mean, it's pretty obvious if you look at me that I have a weight problem and there's not a day in my life that I don't think about my physical appearance. Every day I wake up thinking, 'Am I dieting today?' But it's never been an issue in my acting.''
Never, that is, until Babes came along. Even as she was auditioning, Sperber kept thinking of reasons she shouldn't take the part of Charlene Gilbert, the middle sister who takes charge of her siblings' lives: Besides the emphasis on the heroines' sizes, she worried so much about the pressures of playing her first leading role that she almost refused for that reason alone. ''I didn't want that weight on my shoulders,'' she says.
The producers are touting Babes as an ensemble show (with Susan Peretz as Darlene, the oldest sister; Lesley Boone as the youngest sister, Marlene; and Rick Overton as Charlene's boyfriend, Ronnie), but Sperber's role is the pivotal one. As Charlene, she is constantly trying to show the rest that their weight shouldn't hold them back, that size is no reason to stop believing in yourself. One story line has Charlene persuading her sisters to join a health club in spite of the stares they draw from the less ample members. And in the pilot episode, Charlene is the one who tries to find her baby sister a job, reading a classified ad to which her sister says, ''It doesn't say anything about being fat.''
''This isn't about weight,'' Charlene responds, before being cut off by the oldest sister, who blurts out, ''Everything is about weight.''
''Charlene is really different from me,'' Sperber says, taking time out from a rehearsal. ''She's very happy with herself. She has a lot of self-confidence and doesn't really think much about her weight, which is great. I mean, this show could really help me. It could teach me to like myself for what I am.''
As positive as she thinks the show will be, Sperber is not entirely comfortable with the way Babes is being promoted: Its clips emphasize such sights as sofa beds collapsing.
''I've read things that say the show is about three girls that weigh over 200 pounds. And I've never touched 200 pounds. When that happens, you kind of take it personally. Every time I've made a film or a television series, there's always the p.r. sessions, the interviews, and in all those years no one ever asked me about my weight. Now, all of a sudden, the whole interview is questions like 'How much do you weigh?' 'Did you go to your prom?' 'Did you not go because you were too fat?' I've gotten used to it now, but it's not my favorite thing.''
Sperber's first significant movie role came in Robert Zemeckis' 1978 I Wanna Hold Your Hand; she played a screaming Beatlemaniac who, among other things, climbed through elevator shafts and leapt from a moving car. Her hurricane-force portrayal of a man-hungry woman at a USO dance was one of the few good things about Steven Spielberg's disastrous 1979 comedy 1941, and as a cast regular on ABC's Bosom Buddies in the early 1980s, she regularly swiped scenes from costars Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari. There have been two other series since then (Private Benjamin and Women in Prison) and dozens of film and TV guest appearances.
''Most of my career has been playing the second banana,'' Sperber says. ''Coming on, saying a funny line, and leaving. I've made a living doing that. When you're a supporting character, no matter how the product turns out, you're fine. If it's good, you can say you were a part of it, and if it's bad, well, it's not my fault. Now, if this bombs, maybe it is my fault.''
It took a week of phone calls from Candace Farrell, one of Babes' three executive producers, before Sperber agreed to join the cast. ''We wanted somebody who was alive and sexy and vulnerable and funny, and Wendie Jo was all those things,'' Farrell says. ''What I told her is that this is not a series about weight jokes, that it's about self-esteem and how it feels to be part of the disenfranchised. There are a lot of people in this country who never feel like they're pretty enough or smart enough or tall enough or skinny enough. And we were using these three girls as a metaphor for all of that, for all those disenfranchised people.''
And what about the pressure of carrying the show? ''I talked myself out of it,'' Sperber says, sounding embarrassed that she'd even brought it up. ''I decided it really wouldn't be my fault. I'm not writing the show. I'm not directing the show. I am but a pawn.''
Sperber, now in her early 30s, never planned on being an actress. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Southern California, where her dad still runs a small landscaping business. While in high school she got a part in an amateur weekend musical revue in a small Hollywood theater. ''We were all at that age where you're singing and dancing and taking tap classes. And it was like, 'Hey, why don't we put on a show?' We rented a theater on Melrose Avenue and did old Cole Porter songs, things like that. I just did it 'cause the guys were cute.'' The show eventually attracted the attention of a number of Hollywood agents and producers, including Allan Carr, who gave Sperber a small part in his 1978 film musical, Grease.
Suddenly, for reasons she still doesn't claim to understand, Sperber was being offered auditions all over Hollywood, including one for I Wanna Hold Your Hand. ''I needed an appointment book more then than I do now,'' she says.
In spite of her success, Sperber says she has never taken her acting career that seriously. She's married (her husband, Richard, produces industrial videos) and has two kids and a happy home life. ''I guess I do work a lot,'' she says, ''but I still don't necessarily think of acting as my career. When I was younger, I was around a group of people who all that was on their minds was to become an actor, and I could never understand that. I mean, I'm a native Californian, but to think people actually pack up their bags to do this. I would never uproot myself like that.
''I think part of the reason I was scared about taking on another series was that, if it's good, it could go on for a really long time,'' she says, with that giggly, throaty laugh of hers. ''And I hate working. I'd much rather stay home and do nothing.''