*Jane Kaczmarek is best known for playing characters that are crazed, complicated, and sometimes downright mean. (It’s all an act.) By Ken Parish Perkins

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The phone rings. It’s Jane Kaczmarek on the line, and I start to sweat a little. After all, this is the woman who expertly played the manic mother on Malcolm in the Middle and provided the voice of the tyrannical judge on The Simpsons. This fall, she’s played a similarly menacing courtroom queen -- but in the flesh -- on her new TNT drama, Raising the Bar, which wraps up its successful first season this month. Just how daunting is her character?

ONE ATTORNEY ON THE SHOW CALLS HER “A SADIST IN A ROBE.” ANOTHER CALLS HER “A PETTY, SPITEFUL TYRANT.” WELL, THEN.

Needless to say, I’m a little intimidated. You can’t play roles like those that well without being a little unglued yourself, can you?

But instead of the overbearing motor-mouth I’ve seen her play on television, Kaczmarek is downright … sweet. “In my career, I always wanted to play the victim, the person who would be weeping,” she laments. “But I always got cast as the person making the others weep.”

With that kind of a cry-inducing CV, it is no wonder that Steven Bochco, the veteran producer of hits like L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues, thought of her first for the role of Judge Trudy Kessler.

“We wanted a dominant personality for that role,” Bochco says. “So from day one, there was a very, very short list. And she was number one on that short list.”

So he enlisted the help of the sitcom veteran, who had been nominated for an Emmy for each of her seven seasons on Malcolm, to help bring his legal drama to life.

“It’s a take-charge role but on a different level of complexity and manipulation,” Kaczmarek says. “Getting those boys to behave on Malcolm took a certain level of cleverness. But there are far more mind games on Raising the Bar.”

While the complexity of the character appealed to the actress in Kaczmarek, the chance to share the spotlight with a larger ensemble cast appealed to the busy mom in her. On Raising the Bar, which costars Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Gloria Reuben, Kaczmarek steals more scenes than she stars in. But after having watched her kids log so much time with caretakers during her Malcolm run, she craved a lighter schedule so that she could spend more time at home.

The product of an educator mother who pushed academics and discipline, Kaczmarek, who grew up near Milwaukee and earned degrees from the University of Wisconsin– Madison and the Yale School of Drama, admits to running a tight ship at home: little TV, lots of books. She shares that home with her actor husband, Bradley Whitford, best known for his role as Josh Lyman on The West Wing. A few years ago, she and Whitford moved their family from Los Angeles to Pasadena, California, because, she says, “It has a more Midwestern feel. When you meet a parent who says she’s an astrophysicist, it doesn’t mean she plays one on TV.”

But she admits that it’s not always easy having a spouse in the same profession -- especially when the public knows you as one tough mama. She tells me a story about a time when she was traveling with Whitford and he was approached by some fans. They promptly ignored her. “I remember saying to Brad, ‘Gosh, that kind of hurts my feelings,’ ” she says. “He turns to me and says, ‘They’re afraid of you.’ ”

With Kaczmarek returning for Raising the Bar’s second season next year, it appears as though “cries on cue” will continue to be a stage command reserved for her costars.

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