Nancy Travis

Nancy Travis stars in "Last Man Standing" Tuesdays on ABC.

The role of a smart mom, effortlessly balancing work and life, comes naturally to Nancy Travis.

Starring opposite Tim Allen in "Last Man Standing" Tuesdays on ABC, Travis again plays the role of a patient mom who's a little smarter than everyone around her.

"I've perfected it, I guess," she says. "I always like playing a wife and mother."

The role comes easily because Travis has been married to producer Robert N. Fried for 16 years, and they have two sons.

"You go through so much together, I couldn't think of starting over with someone else," she says.

Wearing a red dress and black patent leather high heels accented with simple gold jewelry, while chatting at the Beverly Hills Hilton, she looks elegant. Though Travis works consistently, she doesn't work constantly, allowing her to go to her sons' games, the beach, movies and occasionally dragging them to the theater.

Travis has spent time in theater, including Broadway, where she was in "I'm Not Rappaport." Like most actors, her debut was a bit more modest. Travis' first time on stage was in fourth grade in "Alice Through the Looking Glass," in which she was the third flower.

By high school, Travis knew she wanted to be an actor. She studied at NYU and waited tables in an Upper East Side restaurant while going on auditions. "My last year of college and for two years after, I couldn't get arrested," Travis says.

Travis finally landed commercials and was in a Levi's campaign that stressed "it was OK to have curly hair, to be who you are," she says. "And that blew everything open. I started booking a lot of commercials -- Excedrin, Hostess Cupcakes."

Incidentally for those who have wondered how the actors keep eating whatever they are hawking, Travis explains: "There is a bucket right there. You're gorging on those things."

There wasn't one huge role in the beginning. There were after-school movies, guest shots on TV shows "Spenser: For Hire," "Worlds Beyond" and "Tales From the Darkside," and movies including "Three Men and a Baby" and "Eight Men Out."

"I have continually worked," she says. "I honestly hope I can work until my dying day."

She cites Vivien Leigh and Jane Alexander among her influences. "I know her quite well," Travis says of Alexander, "who she is and how she comports herself as an actress."

Among the actors whom Travis admires is perennial favorite Meryl Streep, not just because she's such a great actress but because she has "raised a family and stayed married and had all of these roles and still can be at the top of her game."

No matter what role Travis plays, "at the end of the day, my kids want me to wash it off and be mom."

Travis is also on The CW's "Hart of Dixie," but that is a smaller commitment, and she is contracted for the ABC sitcom. "It's feast or famine in this business," she says.

"Last Man Standing" has undeniable similarities to Allen's huge hit "Home Improvement," but he says the role of his on-air wife is different.

"Nancy is very, very lively and funny," Allen says. "And Pat (Richardson) was intense and sharp in every way."

"It feels like I'm on a train gathering momentum," Travis says. "It feels like a huge amount of potential. ABC is offering a wide berth. There is a lot behind it. It's not just the show. I feel like that for me -- I am turning a huge corner in who I am and the maturity I have, and the ages of my kids. I feel there's nothing holding me back."