BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- "Designing Women" creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason once wrote that actress Jean Smart's character on the 1980s sitcom had "legs that stretched out for five or six miles, and one of those laughs that made you feel like riding around in a convertible."
Some 25 years later, Smart's girl-next-door looks, legs and laugh are intact, making her casting of Prince Charles's matronly second wife, Camilla Parker Bowles, all the more surprising -- except to Smart herself.
"William & Catherine: A Royal Romance"Airs at at 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, on the Hallmark Channel
"The thing is, I started out in the theater, so I always did all kinds of parts -- all different ages, all kinds of parts," Smart explained recently, while promoting the TV movie "William & Catherine: A Royal Romance," which debuts at 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, on the Hallmark Channel. "And, actually, Camilla was adorable when they were younger."
Smart said she hopes the movie, which follows William and Catherine from introduction to proposal, sheds a new, positive light on Bowles, "the true love of Charles's life," as per Smart. Bowles was widely maligned by the public and press -- especially in the wake of Princess Diana's untimely death in 1997.
"Yes, there are a couple of moments where she has a nice, self-deprecating sense of humor about herself and the fact it's taken a gaggle of stylists to kind of put her together and everything, and it's kind of nice," Smart said. "I really liked the way she was portrayed in the script, and a very sympathetic, likable character, and I thought she ... deserved that."
The Seattle-born Smart will likely always be best known as Charlene Olivia Frazier Stillfield, the naive but huge-hearted office manager at Atlanta's Sugarbaker design firm, on the first five seasons (1986-91) of the sitcom "Designing Women."
"Oh, yeah, it was a great job," Smart recalled. "And we had a blast. And we're all still friends. And we're devastated by losing Dixie."
Co-star Dixie Carter died in April 2010 following complications from endometrial cancer. She was just 70.
"Oh, she was something else," Smart noted, with a wistful smile. "And we all (the 'Designing Women' leads) went to the funeral in Tennessee, her little hometown in Tennessee. Annie (Potts) and I flew down together. We met Delta (Burke)," Smart then pursed her lips and looked away, unable to continue for a few seconds, but then noting that Carter's husband, actor Hal Holbrook, was "doing pretty well, considering they were inseparable."
Since leaving "Designing Women," Smart has actually enjoyed numerous TV-career highs: two Emmy Awards for guest appearances on "Frasier" (2000, 2001), a key role on the drama "24" in 2006, the year it won the Emmy for drama series, and another of her own Emmys for playing Christina Applegate's self-centered mother in the sitcom "Samantha Who?" (2008).
Smart was killed off in the first-season finale of "Hawaii Five-0" last spring, but admitted flying into Honolulu for her occasional role as Hawaii's governor was no tropical vacation. She said she'd arrive, be up at 4 a.m. to work, and hurry to be back on a plane to Los Angeles to be with her recently adopted toddler, Bonnie. (Smart is married to actor Richard Gilliland, and they also have an adult son, Connor.)
That said, she loved the series' hunk factor, supplied by stars Alex O'Loughlin, Scott Caan and Daniel Dae Kim. "All three of them!" she exclaimed. "I mean Daniel, Daniel Dae Kim. I have this friend. She's this darling, very Southern, very Christian, married to a cute doctor, but she said (Smart breaks into a Southern accent), 'Oh my god! If I met him, I think I'd just have to lick him. He was wearing those too-tight pants and that bulletproof vest. Oh my god! You worked with him. I'm going to have to lick you the next time I see you,'" she recounted, laughing.
On the horizon for Smart: possibly another play for the 2001 Tony nominee for the comedy "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and a small role in a Meryl Streep film .
"I never was an ingénue," Smart said. "So thank god. If I was, I mean, I can't imagine how depressing that would be right around now. So, in many ways I do feel as if in the last several years I've sort of been in my prime in terms of work and things.
"So, it's fun," Smart continued. "But I do feel fortunate, because I know there's just not much out there at all for women -- (Smart whispers) -- my age."
Smart turns 60 on Sept. 9.