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A Smart choice for ‘24’s’ first lady

Actress enjoying roller-coaster plots on FOX drama
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jean Smart knows a bit more than “24” fans about the future of first lady Martha Logan, the character she plays on the Fox series. But not much more.

Nobody on the round-the-clock thriller, notorious for its high body count, can ever be sure if they’ll survive until the final second of the entire season is ticked off.

On this day, Smart is shooting the 17th and 18th hours of federal agent Jack Bauer’s latest struggle to save the country from terrorists in just 24 hours — so she knows she’s made it that far. But come next week, she could easily become the late Martha Logan.

“I just hope if she goes, she goes in a real big way and takes a few people with her,” Smart laughs, noting her teenage son, Connor, is “disappointed I haven’t shot anybody yet.”

Smart says she believes the show’s writers when they say “they kind of do it on the fly,” without a predetermined story line for the entire season.

In fact, the following day, co-executive producer Howard Gordon announced the writing team had just come up with “something that actually reverses very much where we were going.”

He explained they’re re-scripting the final four episodes because “what’s wonderful about this show is the end usually lies somewhere that’s not in the obvious places.”

But a comment Gordon makes about the Logans’ discordant marriage being “one of the highlights of this year” seems to imply that she’ll make it to the season finale — at least to the first commercial break, anyway.

No Martha MitchellSmart, 46, is best known on TV as Charlene Frazier-Stillfield of the Southern belles sitcom “Designing Women.” More recently, she won back-to-back Emmys for her guest appearances on “Frasier,” and had a recurring role in the crime series “The District.”

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The troubled and troublesome Martha Logan has been compared to Martha Mitchell, the outspoken wife of Nixon-era attorney general John Mitchell, who was trashed as delusional for not keeping her mouth shut during the Watergate scandal.

Although the producers acknowledge that influence, Smart says it didn’t really figure into her interpretation.

“How did that get started?” she puzzles. “I hope I don’t remind people of Martha Mitchell, bless her heart, wherever she is.”

All she really remembers about her is “a big, blonde beehive and a kind of Martha Raye smile ... and people saying she talked too much.”

But like that Martha, who died in 1976, this one always needs to speak her own mind, even if she’s labeled crazy for doing so.

“She’s obviously sort of volatile ... big ups and downs are not completely foreign to her and obviously, too, she’s on medication and once she took that medication, that affected her greatly,” says Smart.

“It would be fun,” she adds, “if she went off the pills one more time.”

Martha’s husband, President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin), was introduced last season as the vice president. When Air Force One with the President on board was blown out of the sky, this vacillating coward was elevated to commander in chief.

Smart and Itzin once worked together on stage in the comedy “Mrs. California,” and she’s found a photo of them from that production that could be easily used to depict the Logans in happier days.

But it probably won’t ever show up in a picture frame on “24,” as the streamlined Western White House set is masculine and rather impersonal, with only the art and sculptures of horses acknowledging the first lady’s personal interests.

However, the two actors work closely together to create emotional backstories for the Logans, whom both believe really love each other, despite their current alienation.

“They allude to Martha having a breakdown three years ago and we talk among ourselves about what might be going on,” says Smart of her collaboration with Itzin. She reasons Martha’s dilemmas stem not just from a chemical imbalance but from being thrust into public life and sidelined by her husband’s ambition. “When she says, ’We used to be a good team,’ I think she means that,” she stresses.

“We have invented some stuff that are secrets that aren’t worth telling, because then they wouldn’t be secrets any more,” says Itzin, who like all “24” cast members, is good at hinting but not revealing.

She feels the show’s appeal, whatever one’s political beliefs, taps into the fact that “there’s something very satisfying about a show where the bad guys are dealt with, and I think we all secretly hope there is a CTU (”24’s” fictional Counter-Terrorist Unit) somewhere in the bowels of L.A. looking out for us, like Jack does.”

The plot has so far kept Martha apart from the often efficiently brutal but intriguing Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland.

Maybe Martha will at least get to talk to Bauer on the phone?

“I’d love to. You never know,” Smart says.

Or if logistics allow, maybe he’ll burst into her bedroom?

“Oh, Wow,” Smart grins. “Don’t tease me.”