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'Tartuffe' Stars Aren't Just Acting As A Couple

July 15, 1986|JANICE ARKATOV

"There aren't that many acting couples around anymore," Ron Leibman was explaining. "The Tandy-Cronyns (Jessica and Hume) are getting older, Paul and Joanne (Newman and Woodward) work together occasionally, Eli and Annie (Wallach and Jackson) try to work together--but that's about it. So this has opened up a whole new thing for us."

"This" is Leibman's teaming with his wife, actress Jessica Walter, in the Los Angeles Theatre Center's staging of Moliere's dark comedy "Tartuffe," opening Thursday.

"Who wouldn't want to do anything by Moliere?" Walter asked rhetorically over tuna sandwiches at the theater center last week. "Elmire is a great part: She's smart, sharp, sweet, warm--and she's not a villainess. For once in my career (including her memorable psychotic in "Play Misty for Me"), I'm not playing a villainess."

For Leibman, the chance to play the wily Tartuffe is equally welcome: "I've done a lot of Moliere over the years--played Alceste (in "The Misanthrope"), Scapin (on which "Scapino" is based)--but never Tartuffe. And people have always said, 'That's your kind of role.' I guess because it's a tragicomedy role and I have a good sense of that, that kind of borderline character; you're not quite sure what he's up to--if it's funny or tragic. Like a Richard III, you should feel for this villain.

"Another thing," he added, "most of the classical work I've done has been done with companies I've been a part of (such as the Yale Repertory and Andre Gregory's Theatre of the Living Arts), so you really know one another after a couple of seasons. One of the difficulties in a situation like this is that suddenly people who've never worked with each other are thrown together--and in a short amount of time one has to make a cohesive style out of it. . . . Whether or not we make it, who knows? But I gotta tell you, we've been having fun. Hard work and all that."

In spite of the long hours, both agree that this situation is highly preferable to past work schedules.

"Last summer I was doing 'Doubles' on Broadway," Leibman explained. "I work in theater a lot. Which is wonderful and a joy--not to my bank account, but to my soul. So this (the advent of the LATC) is great. Instead of having to fly 3,000 miles to work, it's 20 minutes on the freeway. Here, I can come home and jump in the pool; in New York, you jump in the subway."

"And I thought he was going to say, 'I can come home and see Jessica,' " Walter deadpanned.

The juggling of togetherness and careers has been a constant in the relationship; in fact, their 1983 honeymoon had to be postponed when Leibman was summoned by Joe Papp for the New York Shakespeare Festival. ("I said, 'Sardinia will always be there,' " Walter recalled. They still haven't gotten around to taking the trip, but, as she pointed out, "Sardinia is still there.")

Walter credits "not being kids anymore" for much of their marital wisdom. "And we've both been through a lot of stuff in our other marriages. Between my (first marriage) and Ron, I dated a lot of really nice 'civilians'--doctors, lawyers, businessmen.

"And I tell you, they couldn't understand if we made plans and I had to cancel because we had to work late, or if we were going to go away and I couldn't because a job came up. As far as civilians go, I really struck out. I guess it was lucky I found such a wonderful, sexy, handsome, divine actor," she quipped, "who before he's an actor is a person. That's the most important thing."

As a result of persistent matchmaking on the part of mutual friends, Walter and Leibman became phone pals when he came to Los Angeles to work on the film "Romantic Comedy." The relationship continued when he went to Australia to film "Phar Lap." On New Year's Eve, Leibman proposed.

"I had it all planned," he smiled. "I sat her down next to the fireplace, got down on one knee--and then I got my foot caught in my bathrobe and knocked her over. I was so frightened, what I said was, 'I'd like you to marry me. You don't have to answer right now, but I love you.' "

Both claim that being able to turn the work off at home is part of their secret for success, although Leibman acknowledged that on a recent day off from rehearsals, "when you're supposed to spend your day by the pool resting, we were setting up the beach chairs and working on a scene together."

And when temperaments clash?

"It gets loud," he said. "We're both from New York." (He's from Manhattan, she's from Brooklyn.)

"But we understand the limits," Walter added. "There are no egos when it comes to our work. We don't compete, we're not trying to prove anything to each other. I think that's why we got married: We'd both reached a point in our lives where we weren't fighting."

Clearly, it helps that each has been independently successful. Walter, who attended the High School of Performing Arts and the Neighborhood Playhouse, has done Broadway ("Advise and Consent"), film ("Flamingo Kid"), voice-over (the current Nordstrom spots) and television (an Emmy for "Amy Prentiss").

Leibman has an Emmy too (for "Kaz"). A graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and with Lee Strasberg, appearing on Broadway in "I Ought to Be in Pictures" and "Room Service," in films such as "Where's Poppa?" and "Norma Rae."

And now, working together, does some of that married-people stuff creep into their stage personas?

"Sure," nodded Leibman. "Particularly in the love scenes. Comedy love scenes, they are. Remember, I told you about my proposal."

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