LOS ANGELES -- Nice is not a word people usually apply to Dr. John Becker. But nice is completely applicable to Chris Conner, Becker's attractive neighbor played by Nancy Travis, whom the acerbic physician would love to date.
"We needed the antithesis, the polar opposite of Becker," said Dave Hackel, the creator and executive producer of the CBS sitcom "Becker" (7:30 p.m. Sundays) starring Ted Danson. "She's sweetness and light. So sweet, we knew it would get under Becker's skin and drive him crazy."
Travis guest-starred last season in the final three episodes. She was signed on full time for this fifth season.
Already living in Becker's apartment building, Connor now also works behind the counter at the neighborhood diner. The eatery's owner, Reggie Kostas, played by Terry Farrell, was written out of the series at the end of last season.
Farrell had been part of a two-day sickout staged earlier in the season by the "Becker" supporting cast. Paramount Television swiftly resolved the salary dispute.
However, the season finale featured new love interest Conner and kind-of-girlfriend Kostas sparring over Becker. Kostas lost, and Farrell was shown the door by Paramount, which would only say that the show was going in a "new creative direction."
The 41-year-old, New York-born Travis previously played in two films starring Danson -- as the mom in 1987's "Three Men and a Baby" and its 1990 sequel, "Three Men and a Little Lady." Also, Hackel worked with Travis on her CBS sitcom "Almost Perfect," as did Alan Ackerman, director of many "Becker" episodes.
"It was my good fortune to join such a wonderful ensemble," Travis said, smiling.
Failures behind her
She wasn't all that lucky with her previous sitcoms, though. "Almost Perfect," in which she starred as a TV producer coping with the conflicts of work and romance, was canceled in 1996, part way into its second season. Another CBS show, "Work With Me" aired four times before getting the gavel in 1999.
With those failures firmly behind her, Travis seems at ease with her new character and the contrary relationship she has with grumpy Becker.
He's interested. She's cautious. He comes on. She steps back. He steps aside. She's interested. It's the classic sitcom seesaw.
"We kissed last season. But never since," she said, laughing about how she and Danson eagerly open each new script to see "is this the one" when it will happen again.
It's laughter that filled a Paramount soundstage one recent evening as Travis and the rest of the "Becker" cast waited backstage for a standup comedian to finish warming up the studio audience for the filming of an upcoming episode.
Shortly after 6 p.m., the cast runs on stage -- Travis just ahead of Danson, who's last to appear. Their bows earn loud applause. Four cameras wheel into place, then the scenes snap by quickly in an episode featuring a story line about AIDS prevention in which Becker treats a teenager who has not been using condoms. Things soon get tangled in comic confusion.
Travis as Chris is on camera in the third scene, taking breakfast orders in the diner. Becker enters briefly and exchanges a few insults with other diner regulars, including blind newsstand owner Jakeand Bob, the lazy apartment super.
Becker exits, leaving behind a brown paper bag, and Bob opens the bag to find condoms.
"Becker's having sex!" Bob exclaims.
"No, there's got to be some other explanation," Jake says.
Chris unwittingly returns from the kitchen with a plate of eggs -- the timing perfect.