AN easy smile spreads rapidly across the familiar face. Actress Lynne Thigpen - known to television viewers as the new district attorney on "L.A. Law," to theatregoers for her recent critically-acclaimed performance off-Broadway in "Boseman and Lena," and to moviegoers for roles in films such as "Tootsie" and "Lean on Me" - has a new identity.
"Cab drivers look in their rear-view mirrors and say `Oh... It's The Chief!"' As the director of Acme Crimenet on the highly successful PBS children's show "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" Ms. Thigpen has added another audience to her ever-growing list of fans.
"I'm amazed at how many adults watch it," she says, laughing. In the program, which is geared to young viewers from ages 6 to 14, kids are quizzed on geography in a colorful game-show format.
On the street, children regularly stop and point Thigpen out. "I think the kids like [the show] because they're not talked down to. And The Chief [who Thigpen portrays] is gruff and blustery, kind of like a parody of what kids think all authority figures are," she says.
The newest role complements previous ones that have showcased Thigpen's remarkable diversity. She first came to wide attention in the stage and film versions of "Godspell," more than 20 years ago. "It was the first job I got," she says.
She moved to New York in 1971 following graduate school at the University of Chicago. "Musicals were big then, and finding straight plays at that time was almost an impossibility." After additional successes in musical roles, especially "Working" and "Tintypes," the latter rewarded with a Tony nomination, she took a risky step, deciding she would stop singing, and concentrate on acting alone.
"It was a big risk, but it was something I had been thinking about for a while. It took about a year for people to accept it."
Broadway audiences then saw her in the second cast of August Wilson's "Fences," where she played the wife and mother in a role originated by Mary Alice. She performed opposite Billy Dee Williams in the play. She later reprised the role in Los Angeles, opposite the original star, James Earl Jones.
"Are there comparisons when you take on a role? Always," says Thigpen. "But I think it can make you crazy if you pay attention to the comparisons. There's an incredible danger in taking a review and applying it to your work."
For the past season, Thigpen has been bringing a new character to life, the tough-as-nails district attorney Ruby Thomas on "L.A. Law," the weekly television series. "I wanted to do an hour-long television show, to find out what it was like," she says.
She has been a frequent guest on half-hour comedies such as "Dear John" and "Roseanne," and did an ocassional appearance on "thirtysomething." The Ruby Thomas character, developed by series writers with enough dimension to stand on its own in a spin-off, interested her because "she was a woman who, I felt, you didn't know what she went through to get to where she was - a black female D.A. You don't get there without being really savvy, really tough, really powerful. And yet she walks that line just this side of the law."
Thigpen welcomes the idea that the character is multidimensional and not built exclusively on race or gender considerations. "It's a character. For me to play it, what I have to use is the gender and race part of how she gets this tough," she says. Any woman who gets to that position has got to be really clear-headed. And any black woman has got to be somebody that nobody would dare even think of crossing!"
As challenging as it has been to create that role, it was still not enough to keep Thigpen from the opportunity to work for playwright Athol Fugard when he chose to cast her in a revival of his landmark drama "Boseman and Lena." The play is constructed around the lives of two immigrant blacks from South Africa. For Thigpen, the decision to play the part was influenced by the fact that Fugard was directing it. "He's an amazing human being, such an open person," she says.
Thigpen has acted for playwrights when they're directing their own work. She acknowledges that sometimes they're unable to see the characters they have created in more than one interpretation, which restricts the actor's creativity.
"But with Athol, he would always talk to me about `your Lena,' and never `I want Lena to be this.' I would probably go anywhere to work with him again in that play," she says.
SO committed was she to do the role that she asked her agent to negotiate a deal with "L.A. Law." She would complete her Sunday-afternoon performance, fly to Los Angeles, tape all the "L.A. Law" segments, on Monday, and then fly back to New York that night. "If I took the first flight out on Tuesday, it still wouldn't get me back until 6 p.m., and that's just too close to curtain if something happens, like getting stuck on the runway," she says.
There were even a few weeks when "Carmen" was filming during the weekdays. "It was hard. But ... I believe you've got to be able to stick to something once you've made that commitment."
And she has been lured back into singing. "Garrison got me to sing!" Thigpen can be heard from time to time on the syndicated National Public Radio weekly program "The Garrison Keillor Show," when schedules permit.
While she has a full plate of characters to manage, and a new film - "Bob Roberts" - set for release in the fall, she still considers what other roles she might like to tackle: "I've always wanted to do `Mother Courage,' and there have been some discussions."
And does she see a move to directing? The smile returns, quick and broad. "Well, other people have asked me about it. And I can't deny it - I have been thinking about it."