WHY LEE MAJORS FEARS MARRIAGE
By Rose Perlberg / Movie Stars / March 1966
He lives in a little frame house on top of a mountain in Calabasas, some 45 miles from the hullabaloo of Hollywood, in an area so rural that TV reception is a party-line. He has a college degree and he works with some of the biggest names in show-business, but he is still genuinely shy and reticent. He calls women, even those his own age, “ma’am” and until he’s spent some time with you he tends only to speak when spoken to – and then not without some difficulty. “I’m just a country boy,“ he insists, seemingly very much in earnest. “I feel out of place in any kind of crowd and when I meet people, especially girls, a lot of times I just don’t know what to say – so I don’t say anything!”
His name is Lee Majors and, before this year’s TV season, he was a recreation director at a playground in North Hollywood. Now millions of Americans know him as “Heath Barkley,” the brooding, sensitive young man who rode into ABC’s The Big Valley last September and announced to Barbara Stanwyck (“Mother Barkley”) and her four grown children that he was her late husband’s illegitimate son. Since that opener much of the action in Big Valley has revolved around Heath’s doggedly determined efforts to prove himself an equal to the other Barkley boys.
On screen Lee is in a slugging match every other week (from which he invariably staggers away victorious): he is the noble champion of the underdog and while he is unflaggingly gallant towards the ladies he rarely has much trouble talking to them. In person, he has the same kind of quiet resolve towards his work, but he seems to be much withdrawn and often painfully shy. During a recent break from Big Valley’s shooting, a reporter visited him in his studio dressing room to discuss his private life. Unlike most actors he seemed to find it hard to talk about himself. For the first part of the interview, Lee shifted uneasily in his leather arm chair, frowning and kneading his knuckles as he listened to the questions and gave wary and guarded answers. When he realized that the questions weren’t “loaded” and no one was trying to “trap” him, he gradually began to comment with rare candor on the subject most dear to any bachelor’s heart – girls:
“I’m a one-girl kind of a guy,” he said reflectively. “I’ve always been that way. I don’t play the field. I’ve always found one girl I like and I go with her until we break up and then I look for someone else. It’s that simple”
Since last May the “one-girl” has been actress, Patti Chandler, 20, a tousle-headed Beach-film bunny, whose career began some two years ago when she won a bikini contest sponsored by American International Pictures. Lee readily admits they’re going steady: “What else would you call it when I don’t date anyone else and neither does she?”
He also seems to enjoy describing how they met:
“There was a fancy ball at the Beverly Hilton Hotel around the beginning of May. I’d just been signed to the series and the people here thought it would be good publicity for me to go. They suggested four or five pretty and well-known actresses as possible dates, but I said, ‘No thank you,’ I wasn’t being a snob or anything,” he added, obviously afraid of being misjudged. “I just…well, I guess I thought that I’d be terribly uncomfortable at that kind of thing and I didn’t know if I should go or not, but I didn’t see the point of going to something you won’t like, just to get your name in the papers.
“Then Julie Payne, a very sweet girl, called me and she said she wanted me to take her best girl-friend, Patti Chandler, to this thing. She kept telling me how much I’d like Patti and so forth. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll call her.’ I made the call mainly not to offend Julie; I had every intention of telling Patti that I couldn’t make it. But,” he grinned helplessly, “Patti sounded so excited about it – she immediately started telling me about the dress she had made for the ball and all – that I felt I’d be too much of a heel to disappoint her. And besides,” he shrugged, “something told me to go. When I have impulses like this, I don’t fight ‘em!
“I didn’t just make the date, though I said, ‘Listen, instead of us just meeting Friday night for this thing, why don‘t I come over tonight – which was Wednesday – and have a cup of coffee and then if you still want to go, fine!” I was kind of giving both of us an “out,” he frankly admitted. “I went to her house – she lived with her parents in a little bungalow in Culver City – and it was a strange thing … it was like being back in high school, with her folks and all. I liked her immediately; she was very easy to talk to, not at all affected and not the least big actressy, if you know what I mean. She was wearing jeans and a blouse that night and very little make-up, which I like. We talked for a couple of hours that evening and I knew my first impulse had been right!”
“As far as I’m concerned Patti fits into every situation in every way. She’s charming in a fancy gown and heels and her hair done and made up, and just as charming in jeans or a mumu with no make-up – and hair not combed and barefoot – the way she runs around when we aren’t out in public and sometimes,” he twinkled, “when we are! She likes to ride and fish, she’s a good cook and housekeeper and she makes her own clothes. She’s very much a little homemaker. I like that!” he nodded. “Yep, I sure do!”
Sometime during the summer Patti added her pet racoon, her tame boa constrictor snake and her two poodles to Lee’s menagerie of two horses, a burro, two collies and a German Shepherd. Now she spends all of her free time at his house and he doesn’t try to hide that fact. When photographers come to do a magazine layout he asks, “Don’t you want pictures of Patti sewing beside the couch, while I read the paper?,” or he makes some other suggestion that will reflect their domestic togetherness. “She has more fun trying to fix up my place a little bit and I have more fun just watching her,” he volunteers.
He is equally frank at confessing that Patti has been fixing up his bachelor pad for two. “She talks of getting married all the time but I just tell her very honestly that I don’t think I’m ready for that. I don’t think I can face up to the responsibilities.”
He broke off and studied his knuckles, mentally wrestling with a thought that he couldn’t decide whether or not to reveal. Finally, he took a deep breath and let it out. “If I was going to get married… now… it would be to someone like Patti,” he said slowly. “I like the fact that she’s in show business without being phony. She knows the demands of an actor and she’s willing to accept them. She accepts me the way I am, which is very important. I’m the kind of guy who, like I said, doesn’t go for the glamour of Hollywood. I’d rather take a hunting or a fishing trip than go to a party or premier. I’m more comfortable in clothes like this”- he was wearing his work costume, a greyish-green twill shirt, tan Levis’s and suede boots – “than in a suit. In fact,” he grinned wryly, “until last summer I didn’t even own a suit. Aaron Spelling (producer of The Big Valley) bought me my first suit because I had to borrow one, two or three times for important dinners.
“Patti isn’t real big on getting dressed up, either. In fact, it was kind of funny: a few days ago Jim (Gomer Pyle) Nabors, who is my only friend in the business, called me, and invited me to double-date with him to some big charity dinner. I said, “Do we have to dress up?” He said, “Yes, I’ll lend you a suit… and for goodness sake tell Patti to wear shoes!” Patti and I had a big laugh over that. I said to her, ‘Honey, do you really want to go to this?’ She said, “I don’t care. If you do.” I said, ‘Well, I was kind of thinking about getting away and doing some hunting this weekend…’ All she wanted to know was if she could go, too. When I said, ‘Sure’ she was all for forgetting the fancy dinner. So I called Jim and cancelled.
“That’s what I mean,” Lee said tenderly. “She likes doing the things I do. She really does. We can have more fun just sitting around my house listening to music, or riding through the mountains and stopping for dinner at some little out-of-the-way place at the beach than we would an expensive restaurant or nightclub in town. Once, or twice a week, we get dressed up – we put on our ‘good Levi’s and boots – and we go dancing at PJ’s (a Hollywood supper club featuring Watusi music) or we go to a drive-in movie. But that’s about the extent of our ‘going out.’
“I know I’m lucky to have found someone like Patti,” he said soberly. “I guess I couldn’t ask for much more… But I’m just not ready for…” he gestured gropingly, “for something as permanent as marriage. I want to.” His grey-blue eyes levelled earnestly, “I want to very much. But I’m afraid. Very much afraid…”
There’s a good reason for that fear. Lee doesn’t offer talk about it, but not too long ago, he did try marriage and it was a disaster.
“I suppose it’s no coincidence, but Kathy, my ex-wife, is very much like Patti,” he mused. “The big difference is that she was very much younger. I was going to Eastern State College in Kentucky, they had a high school on campus and that’s how I met Kathy. She was just 15. We dated for a year and then we eloped. Her parents liked me well enough, but they wanted Kathy to graduate high school first. We didn’t want to wait.
“We were married June 17, 1961, in Lexington, Ky. I was a senior, a physical education and history major. I was going to coach football. I guess the big mistake was that we weren’t looking at it realistically. We were young and we loved each other and that seemed to make everything all right. We didn’t think about marriage involving anything more than loving each other.” He frowned, remembering. “When you’re in college like that, I guess you don’t look any further. Especially with me – I was on a football scholarship which took care of my tuition … our apartment was even paid for. I went to school and played ball and she stayed home and had the little one (Lee Jr., now 3). It was just a lot fun, like playing house.”
But after graduation things were a little different. All of a sudden nobody was paying for anything – Lee and Kathy were out alone in the world and it was up to them. They moved to California because that state and Florida paid high school coaches the highest salaries and Lee had never been west of the Mississippi. Another reason, which he may or may not have confided to his wife before the move was that Lee also had a secret desire to try his hand at acting.
“James Dean had been a big thing when I was in school,” he explains the inspiration. “We were all Jimmy Dean fans. I’d heard that a Mr. Dick Clayton, who’d been Jimmy Dean’s agent, was living in Hollywood. So that’s where we went.”
Lee got a job as recreation director for a playground in North Hollywood and he, Kathy and the baby set up housekeeping, rather prophetically, across the street from the studio where he now earns his bread and butter. “I used to sit on the porch, early in the morning, and watch the actors go to work and wonder if I’d ever go in those gates!”
Before they were unpacked, Lee was knocking on Mr. Clayton’s door. It took some persistence, but characteristically, he didn’t give up. “Mr. Clayton was very nice,” Lee recalls. “He could have thrown me out and said, “Don’t bother me, kid,’ but he didn’t. He gave me some fatherly advice to the tune of , ‘If you want to be an actor, young man, you’d better start studying.’ So I enrolled with Estelle Harmon, a wonderful dramatic coach and worked in the playground from 2pm to 10pm. After six months, I thought I knew something and I asked Mr. Clayton to come over to the house and watch me do a scene. At the end of the evening, he said ‘Okay. I’ll take you on.’ I was thrilled!”
Meanwhile, back on the home front, things weren’t going as well. Adventures in real life were less romantic than they had been in the sheltered idyll of Eastern State College. Before that year was over Lee and Kathy’s marriage was foundering on the rocks. Lee doesn’t like to discuss what wrecked the honeymoon boat. “Let’s just say that it took a lot more that I was ready to give,” he says tersely, “and that I learned a lot in a hurry. Mainly, that I wasn’t ready for that kind of life. We tried to work it out, of course, but it just didn’t happen. When she wanted a separation, I gave her everything… the car, the house, everything – and I ran away from it all to the Calabasas. It was as far away as I could within commuting distance by motor bike to Hollywood.”
During the next eight months he followed a gruelling schedule: every morning he cycled 35 miles from his mountain-top retreat to Culver City, where he studied at MGM’s acting workshop from 9-11am. After lunch he cycled another 10 miles to his job in North Hollywood and at 10pm he cycled the 45 miles back to Calabasas.
“It was kind of exhausting,” he grins “but it did help me forget about the marriage. When I got home at night, I was just too tired to think about anything but getting some sleep!”
In the spring of 1965 agent Clayton made an appointment for Lee to read a big-budget new Western series featuring award-winning veteran Barbara Stanwyck as a kind of Lorne Greene in The Big Valley.
It was Lee’s first audition and he got the role immediately. Explaining why they assigned one of the plum parts of the new TV season in a completely unknown and literally inexperienced actor, Big Valley producers said simply, “He has a face and certain quality that the others (actors tested) didn’t have. He has a little of James Dean, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.”
‘Valley bosses took another gamble by building the series largely around Lee. But audience and critical reaction starting from the first show, proved their hunches overwhelmingly right. And shortly after Valley debuted, Miss. Stanwyck added to their stack of chips telling TV columnists, “I’ve worked with three newcomers for whom I could predict stardom: Bill Holden, Kirk Douglas and Lee Majors.”
Which is putting rookie Majors up there in the big, big league, since Miss. Stanwyck rarely predicts anything for publication and especially since she batted .1000 with the first two entries!
Lee is taking his overnight success with many grains of humbleness. “I was awfully lucky,” he insists. “If it wasn’t for all the great people I work with, like Miss. Stanwyck, Peter Breck, Dick Long and Linda Evans. I’m sure I wouldn’t ….” he fumbles for the right words, then… “well, I’m just immensely grateful for everything they’ve taught me.”
The series, he says comfortably, was “my first goal. Now I’d like to get enough experience in TV and movies to reach the point where,” he waved expansively, “say, in 10 years, I’ll be able to do just one big picture a year and live on a helluva big ranch!”
Asked with whom he’d like to be sharing the dream ranch, he smiles slyly and shakes his head. “Uh, ah! We’re not talking about marriage. I don’t know about that, I don’t know about that at all.”
He allows that he and Kathy are “much better friends since the divorce. In fact, we get along better now than we ever did. I’ve helped her move about three times in the past couple of years and Patti and I go over there all the time. She and Patti even go shopping together!” He ended that revelation with a satisfied smile little nod. It was like saying, So you see, it finally did turn out all right for both of us. Apart.
Aloud, he says, “I don’t know what will happen with Patti and me. Before, I just zipped through without stopping for the stop sign or even looking to see if the coast was clear. Now, I’m going to be a lot more careful. This time, I want to be very, very sure I can handle it….