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The Matter Of Principal

September 27, 1987|PAUL ROSENFIELD

Stardom, to be maintained, must be continually relaunched. Oscar-nominated actresses talk nervously about the Jill Clayburgh Career, aware that Clayburgh did maybe one too many movies about independent women. Switch course, change image, but retain sexuality . When 40 was still scary, Jane Fonda found fitness (and retained a sexual image on screen); when movie offers subsided, Katharine Hepburn went back to Broadway. But stars who last are after more than sexuality or money or attention--they must make career moves that count, or they're counted out. Sally Field's pursuit of director Bob Rafelson got her the feature "Stay Hungry," which led to TV's "Sybil." An Emmy and two Oscars followed, and Sally Field became a role model for actresses in transition. TV series actresses are always in transition: "This is my final season" is their anthem, and their fear.

In March, Victoria Principal left "Dallas" after nine seasons as good-girl Pamela Barnes Ewing. She left with three best-selling fitness books (for Simon & Schuster), a six-figure endorsement deal (for Jhirmack hair-care products) and residuals that will last her the rest of her life. In March, she read the rewrite of a script for the CBS-TV movie "Mistress"--the saga of a small-town beauty who's kept lovingly by a rich married man--and she wanted it. Badly. The problem: Nobody seemed to want Victoria Principal. And she knew it.

Working against her were certain "negatives," and she knew what they were. Bring them up and even now her hands go tense and tighten into fists. Which one to begin with? TV ensemble actress. Never carried a film. Never carried anything but a commercial or a magazine cover. Too obvious a choice to play a mistress. Too beautiful to be sympathetic. Too sophisticated to be a victim. A lightweight.

"It's not overstating to say that I crawled and scratched and did everything else professionally to get this part," said Principal on a recent afternoon, serving lunch by her Beverly Hills pool. Crawl and scratch? The woman who's had more magazine covers than Princess Di (and a more colorful past) and as much worldwide visibility as Joan Collins? "I just had to have this part. And I knew what I was up against. Or thought I knew."

The Yalie and the Beauty

Victoria Principal as "Mistress" may sound like high-concept TV, in an era of high-concept everything. But not to executive producers Sherry Lansing and Richard Fischoff.

Lansing--dubbed in a 1979 Life magazine article "the most beautiful woman in movies today"--was the first female production president of a major studio (20th Century Fox). Today--after five years of partnership with producer Stanley Jaffe ("Kramer vs. Kramer")--she's riding a current hit ("Fatal Attraction").

Fischoff is the former Yalie and publishing veteran who brought the manuscript of "Kramer" to Jaffe, and went on to run the film division of Carson Productions, where he championed "The Big Chill."

If these credits are blue-chip, they mean primarily that the producers are expected to deliver touches of class. That's a given within the industry. These are the kind of producers, in short, who are more apt to be at Malibu dinner parties on Friday nights than at home watching "Dallas."

Pamela Barnes Ewing? Who's she?

So what if TV Guide called Principal the most beautiful woman on television? That's television. And whoever she was, she wasn't wanted for "Mistress" (which airs at 9 p.m. next Sunday on CBS). The film is a relatively straightforward (if dark-as-night) drama about a mistress whose lover of nine years (Don Murray) dies and leaves her without resources--emotional or financial. "Mistress" is a rarity for TV, a two-hour character study, and among the original actresses sought were Marsha Mason, Barbara Hershey and Lesley Ann Warren. Finally the film was shot in 18 days by director Michael Tuchner ("A Man Called Adam"). The British director knew less about "Dallas" than Fischoff or Lansing and was only one of six players who had to be convinced that Principal could play more than Pam Ewing.

A Mistress Needs Sex

One recent afternoon, Sherry Lansing stretched out in her Paramount office, which used to belong to Lucille Ball, and said: "I have to be honest with you. If I really didn't want her, Victoria would not have gotten the part. But I was thinking older . Therefore a woman with less optimism, a woman whose looks are starting to go. Victoria's looks are not starting to go. I also wanted a feature (film) actress. An older feature actress. But once we saw what was available. . . ."

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