In the 1970s, Kathleen Quinlan got her start in showbiz with small roles in big films like American Graffiti and hit TV shows like The Waltons. Those girl-next-door characters reflected the real Kathleen, a small-town girl from Mill Valley, California.

“I was totally naïve [about acting], and I think in some ways you have to be, because if you really knew the statistics you were up against, you would never set foot out the door!” the star, 65, admits to Closer.

Clearly, the odds were in her favor. She landed a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as a schizophrenic in 1977’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and an Oscar nod for 1995’s Apollo 13. Since then, Kathleen’s worked steadily while still managing to focus on what matters most: her marriage to actor Bruce Abbott, 65, and raising their son Tyler, 29, and her stepson, Dalton, 30. “Those boys mean everything to me,” she shares. “If I fail at that, I may as well not have been here.”

We’re excited Apollo 13 is returning to theaters for its 25th anniversary. How did you land the role?

I met with [director] Ron Howard and they asked me to read with Tom [Hanks]. Not long after — having done gymnastics and surfed and rock climbed for a long time — I had to have my left shoulder reconstructed. I woke up in the hospital to my husband saying, “Honey, you’ve got the part!” I said, “Oh good!” Then I passed out. [Laughs]

What research did you do for the film?

Tom said he was going to spend a few days with [astronaut] Jim [Lovell], and they wanted me to come, too. I stayed with them and got to talk to his wife, Marilyn, in depth. I’ll never forget when Jim woke us at 6 [a.m.] to go swimming in the lake. He also flew us in his plane to the space center in Houston and took me on a tour. Who gets to do that? Jim and Marilyn are still part of the fabric of my life. Every time I go to Chicago I see them, and they’re always so gracious.

Kathleen Quinlan Tom Hanks Apollo 13
Alex Berliner/BEI/Shutterstock

What was it like going to the Oscars?

I was doing the children’s film Zeus and Roxanne in the Bahamas. It was a dream job, and I was doing it so my young son could see a film that I did. I came out of the water after swimming with dolphins, got dressed, flew to L.A., got in a gown and went to the Academy Awards! It was unbelievable.

You got a Golden Globe nomination for I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. How’d you get that role?

A couple of times I went in to read and I had worked with a psychologist who specialized in schizophrenia. The key for me was the concept of having no self-image. That was really tough. About eight of us improvised in this grungy office, and I gave it my all for quite a few hours.

What was your childhood like, and how did you get your start?

We lived in Southern California — my father taught me to fish, scuba dive and shoot when I was really young, much to my Fort Worth, Texas, mother’s chagrin. Then we moved to Mill Valley, California, where I was exposed to the arts and ran between theater and gymnastics and swimming. Then I went to college at Marin, where I acted with Robin Williams in Fiddler on the Roof! We saw each other from time to time after that and he’d always yell out my nickname to me.

But before that, you were cast in American Graffiti?

George Lucas came to our high school to look for people, and I ended up getting a small part. The casting directors said to meet some people when I came through L.A. That’s when I met my first agent. I wasn’t really sure how I could make a living as an athlete, and I loved that my work could be telling stories.

You’ve worked with iconic actors, like Angie Dickinson on Police Woman.

I really looked up to her because she always did really good work, and she was classy. Olivia de Havilland [in Airport ’77], the same way. [My costar in the film The Runner Stumbles] Dick Van Dyke helped me with my first TV series. And The Waltons! I have so many memories, it’s like my high school yearbook. They asked me to come out to this kind of reunion at Waltons Mountain for the fans and surprise Richard Thomas. He’s a great guy.

And Telly Savalas on Kojak?

He was a womanizer and he tried and I said nope! I jumped out of the trailer. That’s the one thing my Texan mother taught me: don’t take any you-know-what from anybody!

Ha! How did you meet your husband?

When he was working as an actor in Dallas, of all places! We couldn’t be together for a long while, and I’d said to myself, “Never again with an actor!” And look where I am! We’ve been together for 31 years.

Kathleen Quinlan and Husband Bruce Abbott
Alex Berliner/BEI/Shutterstock

What’s your secret to a happy marriage?

Some actors are very self-centered, and Bruce is not that way at all. He’s very generous, supportive and has a great sense of humor. It was hard at one point because he was working a lot less than me, but our focus was our kids. I have a stepson, Dalton, as well.

Are Tyler or Dalton following your path?

My son Tyler is an all-around artist and working as an actor, which he resisted for a long time because it’s what his parents did.

How did you juggle work and motherhood?

I have to credit Cheryl Howard, Ron Howard’s wife, who said, “Kathleen, wherever you go, that’s home.” So I chose not to leave Tyler — when he was younger, he came with me. Now, when he’s on set, he says, “I feel so at home!” But it’s brutal trying to remember your lines and keep and eye on your kid at the same time.

If you weren’t acting, what would you do?

I would be what I am, a Certified Life Coach — I have that in my back pocket. Or I’d work on a boat!

What’s up next for you?

I finished a film that was great fun, Walking With Herb, with Edward James Olmos. I’m going to do a film called The Tuna Goddess; I play the boss for the marina. Bruce and I live on a beautiful ranch near Ojai, California. My thinking is, if I’m not going to work so much, at least I’ll have work to do on the ranch!

Any good life lessons you’ve learned?

That you can be kind and still be tough. And that at some point or another, life will kick your ass and if you make it to the other side, you’re stronger for it!

Reporting by Katie Bruno

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