Katey Sagal just wanted to work with John Ritter again. They'd done a TV movie together in 1998, a silly comedy called Chance of a Lifetime about a couple whose sham marriage turns into real love. When, in March 2002, Sagal heard that Ritter was doing a sitcom, she didn't even read the script before begging for a shot at it. Producers warned her that it was a small part, a typical sitcom straight mom who'd get only a sliver of the spotlight that shone on her funny small-screen husband. ''I said I didn't really care,'' she recalls, curled up on a sofa in her on-set dressing room. ''I knew that John and I would have a good time together.''
And so Peg Bundy and Jack Tripper were pronounced man and wife in 2002 on 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, a sugary family show that brought in sweet ratings in its first season and became an important part of ABC's comeback (and throwback) strategy. As promised, Ritter got most of the laughs as columnist Paul Hennessy, a man befuddled by his two adolescent daughters and son, while Sagal played his pragmatic working wife, Cate. But today, as Sagal appears on the set for a read-through of the season's sixth episode, director Jamie Widdoes announces, ''She's the man -- or the woman, anyway.''
And he's right, on both counts: With ABC's decision to keep the show going after Ritter's shocking death on Sept. 11, 2003, the 50-year-old Sagal is both mom and dad to three TV kids, not to mention the title parent and biggest star of the sophomore sitcom. So far audiences have wanted to see how the Hennessy clan (and the show's cast) deals with the tragedy: Ratings have soared since September, peaking with the 20.5 million viewers who watched ''Goodbye,'' the hour-long episode that tackled Paul's death. ''We all miss John terribly,'' says Sagal. ''The show is talking about healing and getting on with things, and behind the scenes we're healing and getting on with things.''
For Sagal, the unusual and sad transition from supporting role to sitcom lead comes after more than two decades of steady TV work. Born in L.A., she grew up visiting her director dad, Boris Sagal, on TV sets (he's best known for the 1976 miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man) -- an upbringing that gave her a no-nonsense attitude toward the entertainment industry: ''I saw the celebrity part of the business, but my dad worked really long hours. It wasn't all glitz and glamour.''
That levelheaded love for showbiz -- and a desire to distinguish herself from her four siblings -- led Sagal to pursue a career in music. She learned guitar as a child, taught herself piano at 15, and hit the road as a backup singer for Bette Midler and Etta James. She didn't act much professionally until she appeared in an obscure rock opera about Russian poets at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum. Some CBS casting agents happened to catch Sagal's performance, and they asked her to audition for a recurring role in a Mary Tyler Moore vehicle, 1985's short-lived Mary. Few people watched -- except the Married...With Children producers, who cast her as Peg Bundy. Playing the teased-tressed, trashily dressed hausfrau for 11 seasons made her famous, but it also typecast her. ''[John and I] came to 8 Simple Rules... with big television personas behind us,'' she says. ''We both had to prove ourselves in our own ways.''