Jami Gertz Jami Gertz
Jami Gertz, in a manner of speaking, waited a Lifetime to portray a real-life lifesaver in the cable channel's Fighting the Odds: The Marilyn Gambrell Story (premiering tonight at 9 pm/ET). But her patience paid off, and she stepped into the role of

Gambrell, a Texan who quit her parole-officer job to shepherd an in-school support group for the children of incarcerated parents. TVGuide.com spoke with Gertz about tackling such heavy matter, lightened things up with some Still Standing talk and then finished up with some '80s flashbacks.  TVGuide.com: How did this Marilyn Gambrell project come together?
Jami Gertz:
A lot of it had to do with the relationship I had with Carole Black [Lifetime's former president/CEO]. Contractually, you cannot go up against yourself, [and] Lifetime movies air every Monday at 9. When [Still Standing, originally airing Mondays at 9:30] changed its time slot, I became available. Then when I saw a CNN piece [on Gambrell and her No More Victims program], I said, "This is a story I want to tell."

TVGuide.com: Did you meet the real Marilyn Gambrell?
I went to Houston, we hung out for a few days. I actually went to the [No More Victims] classroom and had to be voted in. They're pretty tough — they ask you if you've ever been incarcerated, or if you know anyone who's been incarcerated. But they really were so open to me, and I think it's because they love Marilyn so much and they want her story to be told. The day I was there, there were 63 kids in class, from one high school. When you think about it, you've got 2 million prisoners in this country, so what could that be, 5 million kids? You're three times more likely to go to prison if you have a parent who's been incarcerated. And a lot of times the kids are given to the grandparent, who was the abuser of the parent, so it's a vicious cycle. Marilyn recognized this problem and decided it shouldn't have to be that way.

TVGuide.com: Is it important to you to balance out your sitcom work with serious material? Is it by design?
I'll be honest: I never gave much thought to prisoners or their families or what they go through. When I saw the CNN piece, I [first] thought that if you were in prison, you should be in prison. [In Fighting the Odds] she takes the kids to a prison to role play with the prisoners, to see what it's like to be left behind, and you realize [the prisoner is there] because he got no love, he had no role model, he had no one taking care of him. I wish I could say that there was a solution. It's not like the parents are coming out [wanting] to be a good parent or have skills to get a good job.

TVGuide.com: Not to mention carrying the stigma of having been in prison in the first place.
You're given $250 and told never to come back. If you've been locked up for 20 years, where the hell do you go? You go back to what you knew 20 years ago, which is probably the same thing that got you into prison. The thing that was most difficult for me is the culture.... Did you see March of the Penguins? I think penguins are better parents than humans. When all you hear [as a child is], "You're stupid, you're ugly, you look like your father, the one who went to prison," there is no positive reinforcement. What Marilyn does for these kids is she hugs them and loves them and tells them, "You can be better than this."

TVGuide.com: On to happier topics: Still Standing premieres its fourth season on Sept. 21. What is the secret to keeping a half-hour sitcom fresh?
Good writing. All the writers have been with us since the beginning, and they  still love their jobs. We're on our third script [of the new season] and it's hysterical.

TVGuide.com: Can you give us a preview?
Judy and Bill's son comes back, having been deflowered in Europe, which we are psyched about. But it turns out [Brian's lover] is a shyster who's trying to get him to give her money to come to America, and the problem becomes whether we want to ruin his first memory of love. We also have a new neighbor [recurring role played by Todd Stashwick] who is the heir to a beer fortune. He builds a Wiffle ball court, and Bill is just enamored.

TVGuide.com: What are you most recognized for by fans?
I run the gamut because I get, "You're the girl from The Lost Boys," even though I'm 20 years out from that. And, of course, a lot of people love Still Standing.

TVGuide.com: I loved The Lost Boys; awesome soundtrack. That and Less Than Zero, another of your '80s films, were cautionary tales that became cult hits.
They still are. A lot of kids are still renting them in college.

TVGuide.com: When you were making Less Than Zero, did you have any idea how seminal a movie it would become?
I had no clue. I was getting paid to have a good time!