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THE LAST PASSENGER TO BOARD DELTA flight 730 en route from West Palm Beach to Los Angeles, she had shielded her hazel eyes with dark designer sunglasses and tucked her signature platinum hair into an expensive feathered cowboy hat. Her 4-year-old son cried after clearing the metal detector, then raised his hands as if to protect himself from the cameras. She had often appeared in a star's camouflage during her outings, but on this trip Loni Anderson was veiling her emotions as well as her famous face. Just four hours before, her companion of the past 11 years—and husband of five—actor Burt Reynolds, 57, had announced that he was suing the 46-year-old actress for divorce.

The news was shocking. Along with only a handful of Hollywood couples, Burt and Loni seemed to have made a success of their megawatt showbiz marriage. Both a leading man and a ladies' man, Burt was one of the first actors to leap successfully from TV (Dan August) to the top of the movie heap (from 1978 to 1982 he was world box-office champion). When his career slowed to a near standstill in the mid-'80s, it was Loni, the implausibly voluptuous bombshell from the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, who stuck by his side—first at his Holmby Hills estate and later at Valhalla, their far-from-Hollywood home north of Jupiter, Fla. Indeed, with Burt back on top in CBS's hit sitcom Evening Shade, life at their gated waterfront home (replete with tennis court, pool, dock and helicopter-landing area) appeared idyllic—right down to the "Rabbits & Squirrels have the Right of Way" sign by the driveway.

What most cemented their union was clearly the adoption 4½ years ago of Quinton Anderson Reynolds—Burt's first child and Loni's seccond—who soon became the adored center of their universe. Not long after they brought the little boy home, Reynolds recalled in 1989, "Loni said something very sweet: 'I fall in love with you all over again when I see you with Quinton.' I feel the same way about her."

So it came as sad news when, in a brief statement on June 11, Reynolds's longtime spokesman, Scott Jackson, announced that the couple's marriage was "irretrievably broken." Though the actor has "the highest respect and regard for Miss Anderson," the statement said, "he feels his priorities and hers have become different." Loni had no comment at all.

Friends were stunned. Seen several times in past months at a favorite haunt—Jupiter's Back Stage restaurant, which Reynolds owns—"They seemed happy and loving," says one acquaintance. "In fact, Loni looked at Burt as if he were the most wonderful person in the world." As recently as Memorial Day, they attended the private cast party for Burt's just wrapped CBS movie, The Man from Left Field. "I don't have any answers as to what happened or why," said Anderson's spokesman, Mickey Freeman. "People just go their own ways."

With no public explanations coming from either camp, hints were few about what prompted the split, though there was at least one report from Florida that some chinks had recently appeared in their domestic facade. "One night, Loni got so mad at Burt during dinner at a waterfront restaurant in Jupiter that she threw her fork at him and stormed out," says a Palm Beach socialite, who refused to allow her name to be used. "He sat there looking very embarrassed. And that's only one example."

There has long been cynical conjecture about the couple's Barbie-and-Ken public persona. More recently, unsubstantiated rumors have been afloat in Florida and Hollywood suggesting that both may have found new romantic interests.

Perhaps closer to the truth is the reasoning among friends that their respective careers were simply pulling them apart: Reynolds recently opened a fully equipped film studio a few miles west of Jupiter on the 160-acre ranch that he owns; three days before the separation announcement, Loni signed up for a replacement part this fall on NBC's nighttime soap Nurses. Even in the past, their careers "kept them apart a good bit," says one friend. Adds another: "In my mind [the divorce] has to do with their separate lifestyles and the strain that puts on even good marriages." Three years ago. Reynolds sold his Jupiter dinner theater, but he remains devoted to the 13-year-old Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training, where Loni frequently visits backstage to chat about acting with students. The smattering of visitors who have taken the 90-minute, $10 tour of Reynolds's ranch see his leather-seated screening room, private office laden with dozens of photos of his pals, and even the chapel where the couple's nondenominational 1988 wedding took place. Yet, remarkably, aside from a picture of Loni with Burt on the color brochure, nowhere on the tour is there a single photo of her.

Publicly, Anderson—whom Reynolds lovingly called the Countess—was every inch the dutiful wife. "I've never heard anyone say an unkind word about her," says her longtime friend, socialite and arts patron Mary Montgomery. "She would model in fashion shows for us, attend all of our benefits and openings. Especially if Burt couldn't be there, we could count on Loni."

But privately, some speculated that her life on Florida's Treasure Coast had begun to lose its allure. "She made a real effort to be part of the social community here," says one local observer. "But Loni's world is the young glitz of Hollywood—not the aging world of the dowager disease balls."

Others believe that her decision to sign up for the third season of Nurses (her first commitment to a series since 1984's Partners in Crime) may have contributed to the split. "I don't think Loni was ever happy being away from the Hollywood scene," says one neighbor. "She likes to live and work there. And it's plain to see that he intends to spend more and more time here." Time itself may have exacerbated a basic incompatibility, "I remember a couple of years ago Burt saying, 'Well, you know, sometimes I like; my privacy, I'm a little shy,' " says Montgomery. " 'But Loni just loves being out there, being with people. She just can't be too accessible.' "

Other, subtler factors may also have been at work—not the least of which stem from Reynolds's sell-described history as a lover of women and struggler with sell-doubt. "Loni could have left me a million times and would have been smart to leave," he said in 1989. Despite his public, just-folks Style, intimates say that privately Reynolds can be controlling and capable of venting a frightening temper. "Burt's friends are all 'moon rises over Burt's star' friends—uncritical," said one associate whom he fired. "He even made employees sign agreements that they wouldn't write articles or books about him."

Burt's biography exists largely in his own telling—much of it offered on late-night talk shows—and is instructive in its self-analysis. His father—now 90, widowed and living on his son's Jupiter ranch—was the stern police chief of Riviera Beach, Fla. Reynolds, a frequent runaway, openly rebelled at 16. "I can still remember the rhythm of my father's belt when I got whipped," he would say later. He is also fond of telling interviewers, "We have a saying in the South: No man is a man until his pappy tells him. And mine never did."

Reynolds became a college football star at Florida State but "was desperately looking for someone who'd say, 'You're grown up, and I approve and love you,' " he once recalled. An early first marriage to actress Judy Carne ended bitterly in 1966 after three years; in a 1985 autobiography she alleged that he beat her. "She broke my heart, she really did," Reynolds responded. "I've never said a bad word about Judy, but she's made a great deal of money talking about me." He sought solace from a siring of female celebrities—Inger Stevens, Sally Field, Chris Evert, Dinah Shore, Tammy Wynette—but it was not until 1988, 10 years after meeting the WKRP star on The Merv Griffin Show, that Burt risked another plunge into matrimony.

At the time they met, Loni—a Minnesota-born former schoolteacher and mother of a daughter, Deirdra, from a brief first marriage—was still wed to second husband, actor Ross Bickell. But a year and a half later, when she was separated, Reynolds began to pursue her ardently (among his gifts: a Rolls-Royce). Anderson was initially leery. "I had read all those tabloid headlines, but when I got to know him, I saw that he was so different," she said in 1989. "He's a quiet, introspective man with very deep emotions."

It was the loyal Anderson who stayed with Reynolds through what became a transforming experience in his life. In 1984, filming City Heat with Clint Eastwood, he was accidentally clobbered with a wrought-iron chair during a fight scene. The blow fractured his temporo-mandibular joint, damaged his inner ear and resulted—before a surgeon reconstructed his jaw—in a two-year bout with almost constant pain and nausea. His weight dropped from 200 to a near-skeletal 138, and the press was rife with erroneous reports that he had AIDS. To dull the pain he took morphine and at one point was, by his own account, downing an astonishing 50 tablets a day of the controversial antidepressant Halcion. For the two years that he was virtually bedridden in his darkened room—and the difficult year of medically supervised detox that followed—"this wonderful lady never left my side," he later said of Loni. "How can you not be in love with somebody like that?"

In the aftershock of the announcement of their separation, friends could only hope that the road ahead would be as painless as possible—more than anything for the sake of Burt and Loni's little boy. "In my whole life, I've never seen a friendly divorce," says prominent Palm Beach lawyer Bob Montgomery, Mary's husband and one of the couple's close friends. "I hope to hell this is the exception—which I think it will be."

Loni, now living in Bel Air and preparing for her Nurses role while Burt remains in Florida editing his TV movie, is "okay," according to Mickey Freeman. "She's basically concerned about keeping Quinton happy." No details of the custody arrangement have been released.

In the meantime, the Florida State Citrus Commission will continue to air three of its orange juice commercials featuring Reynolds, who received $550,000 for the campaign. A fourth, which also shows Loni's hand reaching for a glass of juice and her cheerful voice-over, has now been pulled.

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE
LOIS ARMSTRONG and JULIE KLEIN in Los Angeles, LINDA MARX and DON SIDER in Jupiter

  • Contributors:
  • Lois Armstrong,
  • Julie Klein,
  • Linda Marx,
  • Don Sider.