It's one of TV's unlikelier success stories.

Brooke Elliott was a stage trouper, performing in the national tours of musicals such as Wicked and Beauty and the Beast.

Then her agent told her about a prospective Lifetime series, Drop Dead Diva, that might suit her.

"I had a Broadway show audition that day, too," Elliott says. "I thought, 'Oh well, maybe I'll get the play. I don't have a shot at the TV show.' "

To her astonishment, she got the part - a role that requires some explanation.

Elliott plays Jane Bingum, a smart and zaftig lawyer, who is possessed by the spirit of Deb Dobkins, a shallow and skinny model.

"Deb's soul is in Jane's body," says the actress. The polar opposites have to find a way to coexist. The premise provides a steady stream of humor and pathos.

Even after she was cast, Elliott tried to keep her enthusiasm curbed.

"I had very few expectations, probably because I didn't know the TV world that well," she says. "Plus I had people say, 'Well, pilots rarely go to series.' I figured I'd go do the pilot and be back in New York in a month."

Not only did Drop Dead Diva get picked up, it was an instant hit for Lifetime. The recent debut of the third season notched 2.9 million viewers against some very stiff competition on cable, including the season finales of Game of Thrones and The Killing.

"When I started this role, I really wanted to make sure that Deb/Jane had a great sense of humor," says Elliott. "I wanted her to be able to laugh at herself. And I wanted her to have a really big heart."

Maybe it's DDD's themes of identity and personal transformation. Maybe it's the show's broad comedic streak. Or maybe it's the random song-and-dance numbers, but Diva's been able to pull an illustrious and eclectic parade of guest stars, including Liza Minnelli, Tim Gunn, Rosie O'Donnell, Clay Aiken, Wendy Williams, LeAnn Rimes, and Jennifer Tilly.

The series appeals to both genders, although men were reluctant to admit their allegiance.

"In the beginning, I would hear, 'Cool show. My wife makes me watch it' or 'My girlfriend has it on in the background,' " says Elliott.

"By season two there was no more justification. Guys would say, 'I love the show.' "

The actress struggled at first with the long hours and hermetic work environment.

"I had to get used to the fact that there was no audience there anymore," she says. "Here I am doing comedy and no one's laughing. You have to trust your instincts - know if you hit it or not and move on."

No one is going to confuse DDD's courtroom scenes with Perry Mason-style solemnity.

"This is different from most law shows because I'm really playing a person within the lawyer," she says. "If she doesn't know something, it's accepted. She often resorts to theatrics."

The protagonist's dueling personalities make even romance tricky. Before she died, Deb's boyfriend was Grayson (Jackson Hurst), an attorney at Jane's firm.

She's still in love with him, but now she has to try to gain his affection without the flowing blond locks and the Barbie-doll body.

After two seasons of romantic tension and impediments, the couple seem headed for a happy ending. Maybe.

"We do sleep together," teases Elliott. "But there's a twist to that."

We'd expect no less in the inside-out world of Drop Dead Diva.

Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or Read his pop-culture blog at