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Her Midlife Miracle

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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."

The middle of three sisters, Cross grew up in Marlborough, MA, about 40 miles from Boston: "All my friends were, like, ‘When I get married, I'm going to have my bridesmaids wear mint-green dresses.' But all I wanted was to be an actress and go to New York."

And so she did, after graduating half a year ahead of her high school class. She got into Juilliard and stayed at a YMCA until she found an apartment with a classmate. "I saw my first cockroaches and hookers," Cross says. "I was in heaven!" Regional theater, roles on soap operas ( The Edge of Night , One Life to Live ), and guest appearances on TV series led her to Hollywood, where she landed her breakout role on Melrose Place in 1992.

A few years before, she had started a relationship with Richard Jordan, a Harvard-educated actor 24 years her senior. Asked about the age difference, Cross says now, "You can always go to the father-daughter thing, and I'm sure that was part of it. But it was a wonderful teaching thing where he got the awe of a young girl and I got the benefit of everything he knew in his life." Five years after they met, Jordan died of a brain tumor, having been nursed by his daughter and Cross. "He died in my bed," Cross says quietly, "and I learned a lot about the kind of person I was. And as young as I was, taking care of him the way I did, giving him a good death, gave me some pride that I'd done something good, which I still feel."

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