LOS ANGELES — As the long-suffering fictional wife of the most socially inept man on television — Larry David of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — Cheryl Hines regularly endures all sorts of indignities. But few can compare with the real-life humiliations she experienced during the years she was struggling to launch her acting career.

There was the time Hines was cast in a TV commercial as a woman with a bad perm — solely on the basis of her head shot. (The saddest part: She’d recently graduated from beauty school. And she didn’t even have a perm.) Then there was the time she was working as Rob Reiner’s assistant and had a breakdown in Macy’s when a shower curtain he’d requested wasn’t in stock. And there were the years she spent driving her rickety Toyota Tercel to a gig at the Universal Studios theme park, where, dressed in a flesh-colored bodysuit, she was drenched with water and stabbed to death 10 times a day, in a re-creation of the shower scene from “Psycho.”

This story first appeared in the December 29, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“When I turned 30, that was definitely the low point,” she says. “I’d been dating this investment banker, and that didn’t work out. I didn’t have an agent or a single acting job. I thought I’d wind up a 50-year-old crazy lady with weird pets, still living in this one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood.” She consoled herself with the idea that she wasn’t dragging a family down with her. “I thought, at least it’ll just be me.”

It might seem easy for her to laugh about it all now, as Hines — 38, and six months pregnant — sits in her spacious Hollywood Hills home with a couple of scripts on the coffee table, a silver-framed wedding photo on the mantelpiece and a shiny BMW in the garage. But Hines has always had a sense of humor. After one too many unsuccessful auditions, she finally realized that comedy was her calling and signed up for a class with L.A.’s Groundlings improv troupe, where such instructors as a pre-“Friends” Lisa Kudrow helped her sharpen the skills she now brings to “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Unlike other sitcoms, “Curb,” which starts its fourth season on HBO Jan. 4, is unscripted and unrehearsed. In order to achieve its naturalistic, all-too-real quality, David (a co-creator of “Seinfeld”) gives the actors only a brief outline of each scene. The dialogue, and most everything else, is up to them.

However unorthodox David’s tactics, they’re obviously working. Last season, the show received 10 Emmy nominations, including one for Hines. On paper her role may seem thankless — unflappable straight person to the exasperatingly over-the-top David — but Hines does the job with such subtle mastery that critics have credited her with holding the entire show together.

“The fact that you believe she genuinely likes me is quite an achievement,” says David. “And what amazes me is that Cheryl always knows how to make the scene funny, without really caring how she comes off.”

In person, Hines doesn’t seem like an obvious choice to play a Santa Monica wife whose main preoccupations are fund-raisers and tennis lessons. She has all of her character’s deadpan irony (and the big white Chiclets smile), but she’s also effervescent and friendly in a let’s-have-a-beer sort of way.

A native of Tallahassee, Fla., Hines graduated from Lively VoTech beauty school, where she was mockingly known as “Miss Movie Star” because she’d once let slip that she wanted to be an actress. She later enrolled at West Virginia University but couldn’t afford the tuition (“Not that it’s the most expensive school”), so she finished college in Florida before moving to L.A. in 1994 — just in time for the big earthquake.

Although Hines is happy that she’ll be shooting a fifth season of “Curb” next spring, she wouldn’t mind occasionally acting in productions that come with actual screenplays. (She recently shot two: John Hamburg’s “Along Came Polly,” in which she has a small role as Jennifer Aniston’s nasty boss, and “Father of the Pride,” an animated TV series that DreamWorks is producing for NBC.)

In the meantime, she’ll prepare for the birth of her first child. Hines married talent manager Paul Young a year ago, and she reports that her real-life marriage is far less taxing than her fictional one. “Paul doesn’t annoy me,” she says. “Talk to me in 15 years. But for the most part, he’s really easygoing — the opposite of Larry.”

Despite her rising profile in the industry, Hines has remained extremely tight with her old cabal of struggling actors — the ones she used to join at the Snake Pit Ale House on Melrose Avenue to whine about how hard it is to get work. Today, many of them still have plenty to whine about, and Hines admits it’s sometimes awkward when she doesn’t.

“It’s a little weird when you’re driving a BMW and your friend is still driving a Tercel,” she says. “But we all laugh about it. And if they ever need a fancy car for the night, they can borrow mine.”

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