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Writer's 'Real Thing' Finally Comes Along

October 15, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

One advantage of working at the same newsstand for a long time is that you get to see the wider graphs of lives and careers, not just the star-burst peaks of acclaim. You also get to see that while Hollywood is sometimes better at inventing happy endings than living them, there are now and again true upbeat chronicles to be found.

Iris Rainer Dart's new novel, " 'Til the Real Thing Comes Along," is, as the saying goes, in the stores. It is, as the saying also goes, semi-autobiographical. This means that there are inventions and divergences from historical truth within it, but that in its broad strokes and spirit, it is true, as in this case I know it to be.

The simple secret of the plot is that the real thing, the perfect love, may well come along in a cloud of improbability after years of disappointment, dismay and tragedy. It sounds like a romance novel, with a heaving bosom and a gent with a widow's peak on the gaudy cover, but this one carries the gritty feel and bittersweet flavors of reality.

I wrote a column about Iris Rainer nearly 15 years ago, when she was a darkly beautiful actress not long out of Carnegie-Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, still abrading her knuckles knocking on Hollywood's door.

She had been in the new talent program Bruce Cohn Curtis was then running at Columbia, studying with Walter Beakel. She had had a part in "With Six You Get Eggroll," a part so small you could miss it if you dropped your hat.

She talked about all the reasons she'd been given for not getting parts. She was too dark, too light, too short, too tall, too thin, not thin enough, too Jewish, not Jewish enough. She had written comedy material in Pittsburgh and she was beginning to concentrate on the writing here, on the sensible ground that her typewriter didn't care how she looked but only if she could reach the keys.

She and a girlfriend wrote and sold an episode of "That Girl," and she was away, not exactly in a tearing rush, but with a widening reputation for being funny under pressure. She wrote for Cher, and some of the funniest interludes in the new book are about the writers of a variety show whose star sounds like Minnie Pearl and Dolly Parton rolled into one.

Iris married Steve Wolf, an attractive young rock concert promoter, and they had a son, Gregory, who is now a handsome teen-ager. The marriage didn't work and a few months after the divorce, Steve was murdered by a couple of kids during a robbery at his house.

The typewriter kept Iris and Gregory afloat. She wrote a first novel, also inspired by reality, called "The Boys in the Mail Room," about a quartet of trainees in the Universal mail room who went on to big things. The reality was that Steve Wolf was in the mail room with Mike Medavoy of Orion and the directors Walter Hill ("48 HRS.") and John Badham ("Saturday Night Fever").

Aaron Spelling bought the book, although it has not been produced. Iris' second novel, "Beaches," about the friendship of two wildly different women, one a star, was bought by Michael Eisner for Bette Midler and it is scheduled to shoot in February.

Then, something over six years ago at a party she went to reluctantly, she met Stephen Dart, and it was a confrontation even the movies might have found farfetched. He was younger, richer, supremely Republican, an impeccable WASP, his archconservative father Justin Dart a member of Ronald Reagan's "kitchen cabinet."

"My father was a social worker in a settlement house in Pittsburgh, a Socialist, very left," Iris said at lunch this week. She is a first-generation American of Russian immigrant parents who grew up in hand-me-downs, hearing more Yiddish than English around the apartment.

It was a kind of mirror image of "Abie's Irish Rose," with added complications. "Gregory told me he didn't want to meet any man I was dating until we'd been dating six months. He didn't want to be disappointed. He'd figured that out, and he was just a little kid then."

It was all unlikely, but Steve Dart kept calling and they were married five years ago. (The courtship in the novel rings quite true, I thought, including Iris' first "Don't bother me, kid" responses to his calls. Her family was as likely to be upset that he wasn't Jewish as his was going to be that she was.)

I attended Gregory's bar mitzvah not long after the marriage, and beginning his brief, affectionate remarks, Steve Dart told the congregation: "Unaccustomed as I am to speaking at my son's bar mitzvah. . . ." It brought the house down.

Against anybody's apprehensions, Justin Dart came to love his daughter-in-law. She has been doing research about her own father's life. The settlement house in Pittsburgh where he worked is going to be dedicated to him.

"It's curious," she said at lunch, "how many things people said about Justin Dart are said in almost the same words about my father: a tough little no humbug guy, very focused, beliefs not lightly held. For two men so far apart in their beliefs--and their life styles, to say the least--the descriptions are extraordinarily alike."

Steve and Iris now have a daughter, age 2 and beguiling, and Iris is well into a new novel, about single mothers. Her husband is now involved in international pay television.

Iris' sense of wry comedy still threads through the happiness.

"I think we've got to get out of here," she says. "I'm not sure about the values anymore. A writer friend of mine had a phone call from a producer the other day. The connection wasn't good, and the producer said: 'Sorry, I'm calling from my horse.'

"From his horse ?"

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