A busy star of stage and screen, The West Wing's Stockard Channing never expected to tie herself to a TV gig. But when the show's third season kicks off this fall, her First Lady/presidential physician Abby Bartlet will go from recurring to regular status. She's come a long way, baby!

"The first episode I did was this little thing," Channing cheerily tells TV Guide Online. "And it turned out, it had a tremendous impact. People wrote letters... or whatever it is they do.

"It's like something taking root," adds the current WW Emmy nominee. "And now [my character] has become enmeshed to the degree that it seemed appropriate for me to be officially part of [the show]. It's really wonderful — and I don't have to be embarrassed about being in a wonderful hit, you know?"

Asked whether we'll be seeing more storylines devoted to Abby now, Channing pleads ignorance. "Everything is a function of [creator] Aaron Sorkin's brain," she jokes. "That's the reality." However, the actress does reveal that her NBC deal won't preclude her coming and going just as she pleases, as usual. Explains the actress: "I'm sort of an irregular regular because my deal is such that I maintain the same flexibility I had before — which is that if my schedule permits and they have a story for me, I show up. [That's] very important to me in my life. It's just financially a little nicer."

By the way, The West Wing isn't the only place viewers will find dramatic powerhouse Channing on the Peacock this year. Come October, she and Law &#038 Order's Sam Waterston will co-star in NBC's The Matthew Shepard Story as the murdered gay teen's parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard.