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The first three episodes of "ER" have been rather lackluster and may lead to a healthy debate on whether the No. 1 series on television needs some new life. That's what Alex King-ston and Maria Bello were supposed to bring to the show this season, and they just may yet.

The two actresses have something in common besides being the new "ER" regular female characters this season. They have the Oct. 13, 1996, TV Topics cover of The Buffalo News.

Kingston was on the cover for her portrayal of the title character in PBS' "Moll Flanders." Bello was there because my colleague Jeff Simon praised her performance in the short-lived CBS series "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."

"We didn't know each other then, but it's almost like a strange kind of fate that we were both on the cover," Kingston said during an interview in Los Angeles this past summer.

"I thought how ironic it was that a year ago we were on the cover of the same press thing . . . and now here we are for a totally different show," said Bello.

The path that the actresses took to get on television's No. 1 show couldn't have been more different than their accents.

London native Kingston attracted stateside attention from casting directors while she was doing publicity for "Moll Flanders." She was set to head back to England to film a movie when "ER" called. The money wasn't the attraction for Kingston.

"If I wanted to be in a career where I was making money, I wouldn't have become an actor," said the curly-haired Kingston. "Certainly I wouldn't have become an actor in England."

Nor was she attracted by the idea of joining America's No. 1 program.

"Maybe I should be grateful to be on the No. 1 show, but for me it doesn't mean anything," she said. "I joined it because the quality of the writing is extremely good. And I admire the company of actors. I feel like I'm joining a theater company. And I find that exciting. Also, in the span of a year or two years I have a chance to create a brand-new part and flesh that part out."

In this season's second episode, her character, Dr. Elizabeth Corday, showed a skeptical Dr. Peter Benton (Eriq LaSalle) that she was a quick learner.

"I will probably play off Dr. Benton in surgery," Kingston said before having met LaSalle this summer. "I like the character that he's created because he makes it difficult for himself. He's quite dour and takes himself incredibly seriously and has problems in communicating with the other characters. I actually really admire that actor's choice, because most of the time actors want to play likable characters because they want the audience to like them and love them."

About her own character, Kingston says: "I know that she's got an eccentric sense of humor. I certainly know that she's keen to get to know everybody. I get the feeling that Benton might get a bit frustrated by the fact that she wants to get to be friends with everybody. He keeps to himself, while she is much more gregarious."

Dr. Corday appreciates the opportunities to do things in the States that she wouldn't be allowed to do in England. Ironically, the same country that was led by a female prime minister isn't enlightened enough to give female doctors a break.

"Nobody regards Mrs. Thatcher as a woman," said Kingston, proving that she has an eccentric sense of humor, too. She always planned to be an actress.

"I had no choice, because it is just absolutely in my bones," she said. "As a child, I was continuously play-acting. I would create dramas."

She left drama school 12 years ago and has spent years with the Royal Shakespeare Company. If you've been to Stratford, you might have seen her in "King Lear," "Much Ado About Nothing" or "Love's Labour's Lost."

She has signed a five-year deal for "ER," though that doesn't necessarily mean she'll be there that long.

"A lot of British surgeons do go to the States on sabbatical. They are usually only a year. They wouldn't want to miss out on the medical changes that are happening in England. If they would stay longer, they'd have to stay for a reason."

Bello joined "ER" last season for the final three episodes and impressed enough as Dr. Anna Del Amico to be asked to become a permanent cast member. As she did last season, Dr. Del Amico is clashing with Dr. Doug Ross (George Clooney).

"I think the reason Dr. Ross and I clash so much is, we're both pediatricians and it's the first time another pediatrician is coming into the emergency room," said Bello. "So we challenge each other on the level of how we do medicine."

She doesn't expect to be romantically involved with Clooney's character, who is back with nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies). "When I got the job I was told I'm going to be a good doctor, not to be anybody's partner," said Bello.

But things could change. "I know I'm striking up a friendship with Noah Wyle's character (Dr. John Carter) because we're both interns in the emergency room."

Bello certainly was one of last season's luckiest performers, leaping from a canceled series to the No. 1 series on television. She auditioned for another part before she was called back two weeks later to play Anna.

Unlike Kingston, she hadn't planned to be an actress. She planned to be a lawyer until she attended an acting class as a senior at Villanova.

"Where I came from, you didn't know you could be an actress," said Bello. "I had a wicked imagination as a kid and was a voracious reader. . . . I was intrigued about acting and I really thought you had to be in Hollywood to be an actress."

A funny thing happened on the way to law school. She headed for New York to take acting classes.

"It was one of the old stories about being in a car with 200 bucks in your pocket, nowhere to go, ohmygod," explained Bello.

On New Year's Day 1990, she picked up a copy of a publication called Roommate Finders and knocked on someone's door at 9 a.m. "I lived in her living room on a mattress in 1990 for about two months," said Bello.

She found a teacher and studied acting three years while waitressing and bartending to make ends meet. Eventually she had a variety of theater roles before heading to Hollywood. She had guest spots on several series and on a failed pilot before getting the co-lead opposite Scott Bakula in "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."

"People think you came out of nowhere," said Bello. "Nowhere? I've been doing this for so many years."

She has gone from sleeping in a living room to entering America's living rooms on TV's No. 1 show.