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From Private Life to 'Major Dad'

June 10, 1990|DANIEL CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A staunch oak tree with Spanish moss hanging to the ground is the logo for Spanish Trail Productions, the company behind the CBS series "Major Dad" and several TV projects in development. A careful observer might notice that carved in the trunk of the oak is the small image of a delta.

"That's a tribute to my wife," said Spanish Trail President Gerald McRaney, the spit-and-polished Marine officer in "Major Dad." McRaney is married to "Designing Women" co-star Delta Burke. One reason he formed Spanish Trail was to provide a solid future for their marriage.

"Part of the old Spanish Trail was a highway that ran right in front of the house where I lived near the gulf (of Mexico)," said the 43-year-old actor. "My grandfather put the first pavement on this highway; it's called Highway 90. And it pretty much ends where my wife was born and raised in Florida. So the connection is there."

Although McRaney and Burke are almost joined by the hip in private, people who surround them in the entertainment industry say that the couple is making a decided attempt to establish separate careers before the public.

No wonder. Media interest in the two was so hot for a while that a story about one invariably wound up being a story about both. Just last month a National Enquirer cover trumpeted that the two had split up-a nasty rumor McRaney's publicist said was fanned by a local reporter when Burke was too busy to attend a recent parade honoring her husband in Collins, Miss., his small (population 2,500) hometown.

The couple has turned down national magazine requests to pose together for cover stories. Through her publicist, Burke declined to be interviewed or photographed for this story.

"We were under an incredible amount of scrutiny," McRaney said during lunch at Universal Studios.

"You can depend on the accuracy of stories written about the personal lives of Hollywood couples about as much as you can depend on the information you get from a tout at Hollywood Park," he said, the hint of a smile cracking his poker face.

The closest he and Burke get to the Los Angeles party circuit is when they throw a couple of steaks on the barbecue and invite over some friends. The couple was exposed by the bright lights and inquiring mikes of the media a year ago during their storybook wedding at the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel, and then again at the start of the TV season when the tabloids began jabbering about Burke's weight gain.

"You don't mind so much being out there in the public eye as you mind just out and out being lied about," McRaney said. "It gets to be a little hard to take after a while. The inaccuracies, the simple inaccuracies, that happens all the time. The reporter does a story, turns it in, and then the editor says, 'This doesn't have enough punch.' So he puts words in your mouth third-hand."

If the couple is stung privately by all the attention, their ratings are not. Burke's "Designing Women" ended up as CBS' top-rated sitcom last season. "Major Dad," meanwhile, was the last-place network's only successful new sitcom. Even though it finished the season tied for 45th in the ratings, the show won its time slot most nights, and CBS picked up the show for next season.

"If you think in terms of making a hit show, you're doomed to failure right away," McRaney said. In his sitcom he stars as a die-cast military officer who falls for a feisty but attractive reporter and mother of three girls. "If I had a formula for making a hit, I wouldn't have to work so many long hours. I would just market that formula."

While playing Rick Simon during the final season of "Simon & Simon," Universal asked McRaney to develop a comedy for himself. He developed "Major Dad," opting for the financial rewards the series would offer over the personal satisfaction of returning to the stage, where he left his heart years ago.

"It will be a while before I have the opportunity to do stage again," he said. "There's no time. You get caught up in this business. You do it for the money; I say that unashamedly. I have kids (from two former marriages) who I need to get through college. I'm not about to sit and have my family suffer because I want to be an artiste." McRaney spit out the word with the gruffness of a Marine officer commanding combat troops.

McRaney sees "Major Dad" and other Spanish Trail productions as building blocks for his future with Burke. He hopes that in the future he and his wife will be considered for their work, and not their internal affairs.

"If a guy comes into your house to build a cabinet, what do you care what's going on with his wife and his kids?" McRaney mused. "The only valid question is: 'Did he build a good cabinet?'

"If an actor comes into your living room on TV and provides you a few yucks, then why the next step? My opinion is no more valid or important than the guy who built your cabinets. But because I have a multimillion-dollar soapbox, people want to know what I have to say. It's an unfair advantage."

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