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Her Midlife Miracle

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Around that time, she also started to feel that her acting career had peaked. Cross had achieved some notoriety as the psychotic doctor Kimberly Shaw on the nighttime soap Melrose Place , which she followed with a role in the TV drama Everwood with Treat Williams. But she was not optimistic about the future: "I remember thinking, Wow. OK, maybe I'm done. I started to feel like I didn't want to waste my life if I couldn't get to a better place professionally."

With the prospect of two dreams—an acting career and a happy marriage—fading, Cross decided to take action. A few years earlier, she'd begun work on a master's degree in psychology.

"I was definitely heading toward becoming a therapist," she says now. And man or no man, Cross was determined to adopt a child. She might miss out on marriage, but no way was she going to miss out on being a mother.

Which is why, when she was sent the script of an ABC pilot called Desperate Housewives, she wanted to read for a small part, that of Mary Alice Young, the deceased narrator. "I thought it would be a great part-time job for a single mom." Cross flashes a smile and then says, "Obviously, it didn't work out that way."

Obviously not. The hit show is now in its third season, and Cross and company are seen by an audience of more than 21 million viewers each week. Suddenly, everything is falling into place for Marcia Cross, in a way so perfect that not even Bree could have planned it better.

It's taken Cross by surprise, in part because conventional wisdom says these things tend not to happen to women her age. "And I'm getting to be well over 40," she points out. On her 15th birthday, Cross recalls, she went to one of her sisters in tears, feeling devastated. "I said, ‘I'm 15, and I'm halfway there.' I thought my life would be over at 30—when my life didn't even start until then."

Cross is reluctant to take credit for her recent run of good fortune. "It's not like you just put your mind to it and it happens. I was stuck in my acting career. I was stuck in my personal life, and it was painful. I had to look good and hard at myself." Still, she does allow that if you "take some responsibility for what you've created, then you have the power to change it."

It was her resolve that caught the attention of Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry. And it suggests that Marcia Cross and Bree Van De Kamp may have something in common after all. "When I wrote the character of Bree," says Cherry, "I thought that her strength is that she's a woman who says, ‘I'm not going to freak out when my life is falling apart. I'm going to take action and do something.' Marcia has a similar quality. She's had hard times, but she's smart enough to say, ‘I'm going to deal with it and move on.' I've met a lot of actors who are neurotic and let their struggles incapacitate them. Marcia is not the type to be incapacitated by anything."

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