She is dressed to kill in drop-dead black, her blonde hair pulled into a little puff at the top, her mouth carefully carved in bright scarlet. It’s no wonder, as she moves through the Lorimar-Telepictures commissary to the exclusive Lion’s Den at the back, that even such jaded heads as these are turning. Nicollette Sheridan, 23, has come to understand that she possesses, thanks to fate and good genes, “a look, you know, I suppose-a marketable look.” That look has in five years taken her from a boarding school in the English countryside to the cover of Cosmopolitan to a steady flow of acting jobs, including her latest on CBS’s Knots Landing. She joined the cast at the end of last season, playing Mack MacKenzie’s long-lost illegitimate daughter. Paige Matheson, and occasionally, in flashbacks, Paige’s mother, Anne. It’s the kind of coy, wait-until-next-week role that can either expand or shrink, depending on how she’s doing and how the audience is responding. So far, so good. “Obviously, we’re writing her up,” says producer Lawrence Kasha, “or else she’d be on the train to nowhere.” As Sheridan recounts the course her career has taken, it’s clear the train to nowhere seems nowhere in sight. What can you say, for example, when she expains that, when she started out, she auditioned for 10 commercials and got eight of them? That she was chosen for a major role in ABC’s short-lived Paper Dolls with no prior acting credits? That she originally got into modeling after the head of one of London’s largest agencies approached her at a party? “I think I’ve been very lucky,” she says. “A lot of this business is being in the right place at the right time with the right thing.” The right thing, she might have added, is a resolve and strong sense of self rare in someone her age. She and Paige, not coincidentally, share “a real streak of survival,” an independence that got Sheridan through an emotionally tough childhood.

A few days later, on the set, she’s not happy. She’s less than thrilled with her costume, a kelly-green leather jacket and matching pants so tight they look painted on. “It’s just not the right look for my character,” she says. Over in the corner, actor Kevin Dobson, who plays Mack MacKenzie, is swinging his arms slowly, taking practice punches while talking with the episode’s director, Nick Sgarro. Dobson and Sheridan are about to do a pivotal confrontation scene, and he’s trying to convince Sgarro that Sheridan should “give me one of these-kapow. You know, it’s the this tremendous love-hate thing.” He and Sheridan have rehearsed the emotional exchange over and over, perfecting the choreography of the turns and grabs and tears. “That’s it, that feels right,” Dobson finally says. “Ok, let’s just do it,” Sheridan agrees. But first, she takes a few minutes to get herself together. Playing Paige has tugged at some old emotions for Sheridan. The only daughter of Sally Adams, an English actress who used Sheridan as her stage name, Nicollette never knew her father. When her mother came involved with actor Telly Savalas, she and 10-year old Nicollette moved from their London home to be with Savalas in Los Angeles when he was about to start his series, Kojak. It was a rude shock, Sheridan recalls, especially trying to adjust to kids far different from the well-mannered English children she had grown up with. Far harder, however, was the breakup of the relationship between Savalas and her mother hen Nicollette was 13. Having Savalas leave, she says, “was like being given something and then having it taken away.” Even today, Savalas is not a subject she willingly discusses; frankly, she says, she’d rather his name not even be mentioned. She and Savalas “went our seperate ways when my parents went theirs,” she says (at the time, she regarded Savalas as a parent). “You just hold your head high and go on.” Now, however, this role has forced her to confront some of the pain. “It’s made me think about what it would be like to meet my real father, and that stirs things up,” she says. “In acting everything has to come from some point in you, maybe pull some string that hasn’t been pulled in a while.” Since her beginnings on Paper Dolls, when Sheridan thought acting wasn’t much more than “throwing on clothes and being cheeky,” shes’s gotten quite serious about her profession. She feels sure enough of herself even among this veteran cast that she doesn’t hesitate to speak up or ask questions. Earlier this day, in fact, she stopped rehearsing a scene to let director Sgarro know it just didn’t make any sense. “Excuse me,” she said, coming over to Sgarro, “but the logic of this isn’t clear to me. I’ve just cooked this guy a seven-course meal and what, I come back home again? Why do I come home?” The story editor was called in, and it turned out this scene was indeed in the wrong sequence, a leftover from an earlier script. “It’s important to ask questions,” she says, though she feels this practice didn’t exactly endear her to the producers of Paper Dolls. “Being young and in your first job, people think you should just do what you’re told and not say anything. But I wasn’t about to be pushed around.” On another day, a beautiful one in Malibu, Paige’s machinations are far behind her. From the second story of the white-washed beach house she rents, Sheridan is calling out an animated hello, toothbrush in mouth. She is in close-fitting gray sweats and her face is fresh-scrubbed. This, she says, is the real Nicollette, the one who kickboxes, goes off-road biking on one of the twin white Kawasaki 600s that sit in the driveway, and is about to head off in her Jeep, Rolling Stones blasting, for a ride on her horse.

She’s a good rider, and well-known around the stable, where she shouts exuberant greetings to just about everyone she sees. She coos to her horse, Colorado, a feisty 15-year-old chestnut, a gift from the love of her life, actor-musician Roger Wilson. She works out a bit in the ring, then heads out toward a trail that leads up into the hills, casting a critical eye at the houses as she passes. She and Roger are planning to get married and are shopping for a house. She is ready to settle down, eager to have children. “Career is career,” she says, “and sure, I’m ambitious. But I want to be able to give my children what I didn’t have. My family was not the most stable.” After Savalas left, Nicollette, her mother and half-brother (Nicholas, now 13, whose father is Savalas) remained in Los Angeles, where the chief object of her affection became the Candy Man, a horse her mother bought her. Then, when Nicollette was 17, her mother decided she would receive a better education at an English school, “so off it Millfield I went. And I resented being picked up and placed over there. She wanted the best for me. It just turned out that wasn’t the best.”

Stuck out in the countryside, finding it difficult once again to fit in with peers and teachers who “tend to think less of Americans than they do of themselves,” Sheridan decided she’d had enough, “I told my mother I wanted to leave,” she recalls, “and she said, ‘If you do that, you’re on your own’.” Sheridan had been approached by the head of London’s Models One agency, who had asked her to consider a career with them. She had declined, but now it seemed her best option. Success did not exactly come overnight-she tells of having to steal a roll of toilet paper from a restaurant-but it did come. Though she never enjoyed modeling, she is still signed with New York’s Elite agency where, according to executive vice-president Monique Pillard, “She could be making $3000 to $5000 a day.” But acting had caught her interest at Millfield, and now she has aspirations to do more feature work (she had a secondary role in Rob Reiner’s “The Sure Thing”) and some theater. Knots, however, is “a great thing for me to be doing now,” she admits, another step along the career path that has so far rolled out smoothly before her. Still, she says, “Family is the most important thing to me,” and she says it in a way that makes you believe her. She and her mother have even come to an understanding. “In fact, I think she’s quite proud of me,” Sheridan says. “I’m coming together as a person, so therefore career and everything else is falling into place. It’s funny how life fits together. You feel you’re cheated on some things and then other things seem to come easy. Somewhere, there’s a balance.”