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Animals, of Course

Theater: 'Mr. Ed's' Alan Young and Connie Hines team for 'Love Letters,' an Irvine benefit.

May 02, 1996|RICK VANDERKNYFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA NIGUEL — Even though three decades have passed since Mr. Ed whinnied his last on-air "Hey, Wi-i-i-i-i-ilburrr!" it's nice to know that, were he on his way to the glue factory, Wilbur and Carol Post would still be first in line to rescue him.

In the popular show, Alan Young played architect Wilbur Post, who had long talks with his horse; Connie Hines played his wife, Carol, who had no idea of Mr. Ed's gift of gab. Young and Hines will act together for the first time since their "Mr. Ed" days on Saturday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre in A.R. Gurney's popular "Love Letters." The event is a fund-raiser for the Animal Rescue Foundation of Dana Point.

Young has remained active in show business, with occasional movie, stage and TV work, along with voice-over assignments. He's also a writer, having penned "Mickey's Christmas Carol" for Disney as well as a recent memoir, "Mr. Ed and Me."

"I don't mind being second fiddle to Mr. Ed," Young joked about the book's title during a phone interview from his home in the San Fernando Valley.

Hines, meanwhile, has kept a lower profile in recent years. She was a frequent guest star in such '70s series as "Medical Center" and "Mod Squad" but slowed down after her 1970 marriage to entertainment attorney and movie producer Lee Savin. After they married, they traveled together frequently.

Young and Hines have remained in touch, however. In fact, it was after a visit years ago to Young's home in Dana Point--he lived there before moving to the Valley--that Hines and Savin decided to move to the seaside city in 1989.

At that point, Hines went into full retirement. But soon she began to do volunteer work for Animal Rescue Foundation, which finds homes for stray animals and performs other services.

With Savin's help, she began producing and starring in a weekly public-access cable show for ARF, which addressed pet-related topics and featured animals available for adoption.

And it was Savin's idea that Hines and Young do "Love Letters" as a benefit. The play, about a man and woman whose affections and correspondence span 50 years, enjoyed a record-breaking 565-performance run in Beverly Hills and Pasadena that ended in 1991 and has since cropped up regularly with high-profile stars.

Because the letters are read on stage, the play can be performed with minimal rehearsal. In previous incarnations, it has featured everyone from Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara to Whoopi Goldberg and Timothy Dalton.

Before Hines broached Young with the idea of doing the play, however, her husband became gravely ill. He died early last year--at home, with Hines and their beloved dog close by.

Hines, a cheerful hostess in the light-filled, meticulously decorated Laguna Niguel home she and Savin moved into in 1994, grows quiet when she speaks about a loss she still feels sharply. "He died in my arms," she says, her eyes glistening. "It's really kind of rotten, because we were going to grow old together."

Young, concerned for his old friend, began taking Hines to memorabilia shows. "I was trying to get her back into doing something and to help her forget about her loss," he says. "Suddenly, she found that people still knew her and loved her."

Earlier this year, ARF announced plans to merge with the San Clemente Animal Shelter, a move that will cost the all-volunteer ARF group $70,000. That's when Hines asked Young if he'd be willing to do "Love Letters" to help raise money.

"There was no hesitation," Hines says. "He says, 'No matter what, I'll be there.' "

Says Young: "I had done 'Love Letters' before in Monterey, so we tried it out, and it just seemed to click." Recruiting an all-volunteer crew--director Bart Williams, with Paul Horner on piano and Parker Young (no relation to Alan) doing the lighting--Hines and Young did several run-throughs, including one for drama students at a college in the Valley.

"I hadn't done anything in a long time," Hines says. "I had forgotten how exciting the stage is. . . . To hear the laughs and the applause and everything was just so wonderful."

The role in "Love Letters" brings Hines full circle from her beginnings as a stage actress in Miami. After commercial work in New York and one film role, the part on "Mr. Ed" was her first big Hollywood break.

When her agent told her the producers of "Mr. Ed" were going to call, she had no phone--she had to wait for the call at a gas station. "I waited three hours for that call, having coffee after coffee after coffee." She got the call, of course, and the show earned a six-year run.

"Love Letters" offers a nice reintroduction to show business for Hines. "I love this because I don't have to learn any lines," she says. "Alan used to drive me crazy because he has a photographic memory. . . . Lines never came easy to me."

Her character in "Love Letters," she says, "really runs the gamut of emotions. It's a wonderful role for a woman. I didn't really know that when we picked it, but Lee did."

Hines stops to gather herself. "It's going to be a bittersweet moment, because it's really because of him that I'm doing this."

* "Love Letters," with Alan Young and Connie Hines, will be presented Saturday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. 8 p.m. $25-$60. (714) 854-4646.

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