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COVER STORY

Life Beyond 'thirtysomething'

February 25, 1990|Daniel Cerone

Ten years ago, when Timothy Busfield was a needy, 22-year-old actor trying to break into the business, he suddenly found himself confronted with two job offers at once. One was for a role in the feature film "Tex," with Matt Dillon, which paid $10,000 for 10 days of work; the other was to play Lars in Hugh Leonard's "A Life" at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., which paid $3,200 for 10 weeks of work.

"I took the play. It was a better part," Busfield said the other day over lunch in Sherman Oaks, near his home. "It was a part I wanted to do. I realized then, and I sort of made a pact with myself, to always leave myself open to find the roles that will allow me to grow. And I'll choose at that time the direction I want to go."

The direction of Busfield's professional path now is a subtle reflection of what's most important in the actor's personal life--his family.

In his third season as Elliot in ABC's "thirtysomething," Busfield is trying to patch up his relationship with his television wife, Nancy, who is recuperating from a cancer operation. And on Wednesday at 9 p.m., Busfield will narrate the Lifetime cable documentary, "Don't Divorce the Children," which explores divorce through the eyes of children.

The subject strikes close to Busfield's heart. "I am a product of divorce," he said. "Not only because my parents were divorced, but I have a son who I'm trying to raise who doesn't live with me at the time. And I have to adjust to that. And he has to adjust to that. It's a constant struggle."

The warm, red-headed actor spoke gently and deliberately, with compassion rarely seen in the Peter Pan behavior that inflicts his "thirtysomething" alter ego. In addition to his 7-year-old son, Willy, Busfield is raising a newborn daughter, Daisy, with his second wife, Jenny.

"My wife and I will say to each other, 'Well, the odds are that our kids will probably be the product of a divorce. The odds are that our kids will get divorced.'

"I mean, my wife and I have very strong feelings about this, and that's why I liked this (cable) project. It seems like everybody we know has been affected by divorce."

To be precise, one-half of all marriages fail, according to figures recited by Busfield in "Don't Divorce the Children." Children have a 1-in-5 chance of experiencing two divorces by the time they are 18. "Divorce happens, you know," Busfield said quietly. "Nobody is going to tell you that you can't let it happen. And you shouldn't get on your own case because a marriage didn't work out between you and somebody else.

"But what you should do is pay attention to the fact that there are other parties involved, and they need the best of you and not just the worst of you. That's what hooked me into doing this documentary."

"Don't Divorce the Children" was produced for Lifetime by Academy Award-winning documentary producer Malcolm Clarke. The hourlong documentary explores the effects of divorce on children and offers suggestions to parents. The program will be followed by "After Words," a half-hour panel discussion hosted by Jane Wallace on helping children cope with divorce.

Understanding children and creating opportunities for them is nothing new to Busfield. In 1986, he and his brother, Buck, founded The Fantasy Theatre in Sacramento. The five-member troupe of adult actors--who do 12 shows a week, 36 weeks a year--is the state's only professional touring children's theater, performing and conducting writing workshops mostly in Northern California. If a child writes a good play, the troupe performs it professionally.

"When I started the theater, I was single, unattached, alone and unemployed. I needed it," Busfield said.

Prophetically, Busfield's first stage role was Puck in "Robin Goodfellow," a children's version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at East Tennessee State University. He got his professional start with the Actors Theater of Louisville in Kentucky, which soon led to Broadway as Matthew Broderick's understudy in Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs."

Busfield found a bigger audience on TV as Pernell Roberts' son in "Trapper John, M.D.," before "thirtysomething" made him a household name--at least in young, upwardly mobile households.

"If I wanted people to say one thing about me, it would be that for a fool, he's awfully lucky," Busfield said. "Nobody drops the ball and fumbles more than I do. I don't want people to think of me in a higher level. I'm a lucky tradesman, not a mysterious idol."

Busfield has recently backed off from his involvement in The Fantasy Theatre, choosing instead to concentrate on his own children. He owns a second house on the Sacramento River Delta, surrounded by natural, wide-open beauty, where he frequently escapes with his family.

"My family figures into everything I do now," he said. "I don't want to be apart from this family. Ever. What's good for them is infinitely more important than what job I take. And if that means passing up the lead in a movie that Sydney Pollack is directing, then so be it."

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