In honor of the actress's 80th birthday, PEOPLE is sharing her cover story from 1979
Stockard Channing is one of showbiz’s classic overnight-success sagas, except that it took her 13 years, four months and nine days. That was the elapsed time between her professional debut in The Investigation on the Boston stage and her commercial breakout in movies shooting a heavy-petting scene in the back seat of a hot rod with Jeff Conaway.
“I felt real funny making love to a married actress,” blushes Conaway. Stockard is actually a thrice-married actress, and she herself “felt really uptight, like a 35-year-old among children.”
Their fumbling travail had a joyous ending, of course. Conaway was the leather-jacketed “Kenickie,” Channing was the Rydell High School class tramp, “Rizzo,” and the movie Grease has become the biggest-grossing musical in Hollywood history: $138 million last year, another $12 million in the current rerelease.
Though Channing wasn’t really 35 then, she is now, and it no longer makes any difference. At any age, she looks like $2 million to CBS — a sum the network invested in a production company formed by Channing and her latest husband, writer-producer David Debin, 36.
The savvy Debin starred his wife first in a powerful TV docudrama as the deaf stunt woman Kitty O’Neil of Silent Victory. Then came a series of her own, Just Friends, a quasi-autobiographical sitcom about the single life in L.A.
“We finished the season on a real up,” says Stockard, “with a tremendous wrap party for Just Friends. Around 3 a.m. some of us — barefoot — tiptoed back into our own sound stage to have a last look. We got real emotional, just like at high-school graduation. I feel good about everything. It’s been a vintage year.”
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Not least personally, after a dozen shaky years — thanks to Debin, a survivor himself of two failed marriages. Introduced by their mutual agent, Stockard and David became roommates in 1975, a year before her divorce from second husband Paul Schmidt, a University of Texas Slavic languages professor with whom she had never lived. (“It was unconventional,” she explains. “We both wanted a bond and were more family than lovers. We made no commitments to observe the usual vows.”)
Of David, she now recalls, “I was wary at first. He had this line and that curly hair and looked like a Laurel Canyon stud. Real high-powered. But when he opened his mouth, funny things came out, and I liked that.” When he didn’t call as promised after their meeting, Stockard was preparing to go after him with a Boston cream pie.
“I was saved from that fate by inviting her to lunch,” David laughs. “We were together from then on.” Though they tried to be “terribly blasé” the third time around, they wound up in tears at the champagne-and-caviar wedding at their rambling, four-bedroom Sherman Oaks home. So did 40 of their best “wise-guy friends.”
Still, the union cannot be described as unalloyed bliss. “Both Susan [her real name] and I are strong-willed,” says Debin. “Our arguments are strong and heated. Every time we get into one, I think it’s the end of our relationship.” (Indeed, Debin’s visiting father once refused to leave his room for two days after Stockard and David started going at it.)
But the marriage seems to grow more stable with their newly hectic pace. “I’m up at 6 a.m. and work at the studio until 6 p.m. or later. Then I go to story conferences,” says Stockard, who adds: “I’m not complaining. But when I get home at night, I just fall into bed. I hardly have time for sex, much less children.”
That the nice WASPy girl born Susan Stockard on New York’s affluent East Side should even share a bed with a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn isn’t exactly what her family had in mind. Her father, Lester, was a prominent shipping agent. Stockard, the younger of two girls, remembers herself as “shy and rather bookish,” but with a “bizarre dramatic streak.” Once when her mother was having tea with a friend, Susan pretended behind her back to be crippled. “I’m so sorry about your daughter,” the friend sympathized. “My mother,” says Stockard, “was not amused.”
After being chauffeured to New York’s Chapin School until age 12, she boarded at the equally elegant Madeira in Virginia’s fox-hunting country. Stockard remembers her set as “a bunch of privileged, round little girls into heavy starches and overindulgence.” The only boys they saw were “at school dances when they would import bodies from Exeter.”
Next came Radcliffe, where she graduated cum laude in American history but enjoyed her most significant learning experience as a sophomore.
“I came out in every sense of the word,” says Stockard, meaning more than her deb party at the St. Regis Hotel. “I’d had a rather strict upbringing with a lot of repression, and the lid really came off. It was a hell of a lot of fun staying out all night and being very rebellious.” That included moving in with, and later marrying, first husband Walker Channing Jr., stockbroker scion of a Boston Brahmin family. But the Junior League life expected of her rapidly palled as Stockard began acting in the first of some 35 plays in Boston theater companies, which also spawned Al Pacino, Jane Alexander and Dustin Hoffman.
“My husband grew more conservative and I didn’t,” says Stockard. “He wanted me to be a business wife, but by 1967 I knew I was going to be working in the theater the rest of my life. I left him and threw myself into the bohemian psychedelic world.” She did have a trust-fund cushion to soften any crash landings during that “mixed-up, crazy period. I got a little vague about what time of day it was,” she relates. “I can’t say I was ever down to catsup sandwiches, but I was living pretty close to the line.”
She moved to New York in 1968 with no more baggage than Channing’s name and acted with the Brooklyn Academy and off-Broadway. She toured in a rock version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, which led to her first move to Los Angeles in 1974. “I really didn’t know anything about making movies,” she says. “But in order to cover up my shyness and uncertainty, I hid behind a flip, sarcastic facade. I got a reputation as quite a mouth.”
And, she feared, as a failure — despite her windfall first job as the ditsy heiress of 1975’s The Fortune. She was staying in the Chateau Marmont hotel when she learned that director Mike Nichols, having already chosen the seemingly surefire duo of Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, was casting the female lead in a room downstairs. Stockard trooped in dutifully, she remembers, but “I could have been a Kelly Girl for all the attention they paid me.”
So instead of the usual low-key audition reading, “I entered crying hysterically and let it build from there,” she recalls. After a session that stretched to five hours, “Warren, who seemed a little shocked, turned to Jack and said, ‘Ah, it’s going to be a little hard to see anyone else in the part now.’ Jack looked at me and said, ‘Where do you come from?’ I told him I came from the fourth floor.”
Nevertheless, The Fortune died at the box office — as did Stockard’s three subsequent films, Comforts of Home, The Big Bus and Sweet Revenge.
“You do too many clinkers and you are a clinker,” says Stockard of that period. “It’s hard to turn that around. I couldn’t get a job. I was perplexed.” Then, in hopes of being “rediscovered,” she performed in a 1976 L.A. showcase production of Vanities with Lucie Arnaz and Sandy Duncan. It worked. Both playwright Neil Simon and producer Allan Carr caught the act. Simon cast her as Peter Falk’s secretary in his 1978 Bogart spoof, The Cheap Detective, and Carr signed her for Grease.
Now she barely even gets weekends off. The house rule is that shoptalk is verboten on Saturdays.
“David and I just hang around the house and don’t answer the phone,” she says. They indulge in California-style drinking and smoking in their hot tub, inviting friends for Stockard’s gourmet pasta and dining at restaurants like Ma Maison. “It’s the commissary to the stars,” jokes the 5’2″, wishfully 113-pound Stockard. (They have just returned from a month’s eating-and-reading tour of Europe.)
“We’re happiest when we escape from Hollywood and disappear into England, France or Italy,” says David. “Something lovely happens. We communicate more and laugh more,” adds Stockard, who is preparing to play Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It in Long Beach next month. Her new movie, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, will be out this fall, and she’s cutting an LP.
“I have a good life,” reflects Stockard. “It would be horrible to have it all, but I’m close. I’m happy with my husband, my home, my show, my friends — and in general.” Take that, Junior League.
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