At 56, Julia Duffy readily acknowledges that she's no longer the ingenue who wowed TV viewers as the haughty maid Stephanie on the '80s series "Newhart." Although Duffy has worked steadily as an actress since then in TV productions, films and theater, she unabashedly recalls those days as being the highlight of her career.

"Newhart," whose first season has just come out on DVD (Fox, $40), starred comic legend Bob Newhart as a how-to writer who gives up his New York City life to run a Vermont inn. His wife was played by Mary Frann, and she and Duffy became lasting friends. In fact, Duffy was supposed to have lunch with her former co-star the week that Frann died unexpectedly from heart failure at 55 in 1998.

"I think we both knew we were having the best time of our lives on 'Newhart,'" Duffy said last week while visiting family in the Twin Cities. She was born in St. Paul and grew up in Minneapolis and Edina. "That kind of job is the reason you get into the business. And I had it -- I had it all for the seven seasons I was on the show."

She isn't kidding. Those seven years playing stuck-up Stephanie led to seven straight Emmy nominations for best supporting actress in a comedy.

That impressive run didn't begin until the show's second season, when Duffy joined the show as a regular character. But the three-disc first-season DVD contains the episode ("What Is This Thing Called Lust?") that introduced Stephanie as the cousin of the previous maid who gets over her pre-wedding jitters by having a fling with a nearby cafe owner. It was supposed to be a one-time appearance, with no signs of Stephanie's pouting and me-first attitude that would become her calling card.

"Her character wasn't developed," Duffy said. "She was a plot device, as guest characters usually are."

But the actress made a huge impression not only on viewers and producers, but the show's star too.

"She was a godsend, just wonderful," Newhart said from his home in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Asked what it was about Duffy that made her so endearing, Newhart did his trademark pause and then stuttered with a laugh, "Oh, she was just so damned good!"

(The same happy fate befell Larry, Darryl and Darryl, the three odd brothers played, respectively, by William Sanderson, Tony Papenfuss and John Voldstad. They were supposed to make a one-time appearance on the second episode of Season 1 but proved so popular that they were brought back as regulars. Papenfuss, the dark-haired, scowling Darryl, also hails from the Twin Cities.)

After "Newhart," Duffy did a stint on the sitcom "Designing Women." The ensuing years have included short-lived TV series, unaired pilots, small film roles and many guest appearances on shows such as "CSI: NY," "Drake and Josh" and "7th Heaven." Later this year, she will star in the Christmas film "Together Again for the First Time."

The roles have changed as Duffy has gotten older. For example, in the recently aired Lifetime movie "7 Things to Do Before I'm 30," she played the mother to a woman (Amber Benson) facing a life crisis before her 30th birthday -- the kind of young character Duffy might have played in her "Newhart" days.

"I feel like I'm just beginning to know how to play roles that are my age," she said. "I was an ingenue for so long, so that part is fun for me to explore something that's new."

For the past few years, she has appeared at the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival just outside Los Angeles in productions such as "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "Twelfth Night" and "Richard III." She said she would love to do more work on stage.

"Some of the really wonderful roles in theater are for people my age," she said.

Whether her stage work ever brings her home to the Twin Cities' thriving theater scene is up in the air. Duffy said that she would love to move from Los Angeles back to her hometown but that her husband, former actor Jerry Lacy, is "not a winter guy," even though he's originally from Iowa.

She definitely wants to spend more time outside L.A. now that her daughter and son, 21 and 18, are grown. She's interested in New York, where her daughter lives and where there's more of a theater community. But whatever Duffy does, "Newhart" will remain a dear memory.

"I don't think I'll ever top it, because that combination of a fabulous character and people that were just magic to work with is not something you find every day," she said. "It was artistically very gratifying."

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542