Back in 1974 Susan Anspach had just come off a Hollywood hot streak that would snap any rival actress's garters. She first scored as Jack Nicholson's strong-willed co-star in Five Easy Pieces. Then in Blume in Love she played the independent wife who dumps George Segal for Kris Kristofferson. "I was getting reviews that compared me to Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis," Anspach remembers. "But there were no Hepburn or Davis parts." So, turned off by scripts that asked her to do little more than "what TV couldn't do—take off your clothes and swear," Anspach dropped out. For four years she stayed on the sidelines (except for an occasional TV movie), convinced producers "would get tired of car races. But I told them, 'I'll be back, don't worry.' "
This fall Anspach has kept her promise. In the suspense caper The Big Fix, she has a strong, assertive role—campus radical turned reformer who hires shamus Richard Dreyfuss—and a presence that director Jeremy Paul Kagan calls "innocent," "unorthodox," "eerie" and "tender." The movie world is learning again how to pronounce her name (ONSBOK, as the license plate on her Datsun wagon says).
Anspach's insistence on playing women of character is typecasting. She's a showbiz personality who in her mid-30s has developed gumption after what she calls (without a hint of self-pity) "a life that demands strength." That means, among other trials, the decision she made "joyfully and effectively" to bear her two children—by different actors—out of wedlock. Then she was cajoled into marriage—"I never believed in it"—to actor Mark Goddard for eight years until their divorce last year. Susan now wants to reintroduce Catherine, 9, and Caleb, 8 (both took Goddard's name), to their real fathers. "My closest friends in the world are my ex-lovers," she explains.
Excepting, that is, her current steady, Robbie Robertson of the Band, with whom she got together on "a night we stayed up till 5 a.m. singing '50s rock'n'roll songs." Still, she has no plans to move in with him. "If the kids get attached to him and you break up, it just isn't fair."
Anspach's own unsettled childhood in New York City holds "too many sad memories." Raised by a great-aunt until she died in a fire when Susan was 5, she went to Queens to live with her mother, Trudy, a onetime deb and professional singer, and her working-class father, Renald. Unhappy, Susan left home at 15, supported herself as a cabaret singer and entered Catholic University in Washington D.C. The church (which she has since left) and the psychoanalyst she saw from 15 to 24 "were my parents." After majoring briefly in prelaw and then premed, she was lured into drama by the priest department head and "I knew this was it. Acting is purer than life."
In New York she lucked into Actors Lab, a company of then unknowns like Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall. After 11 off-Broadway and Broadway plays, including the lead in Hair, and a detour singing folk-country material at conventions, Susan broke into movies. Her patrician image—"tweed suits, thin smiles and low, husky voice"—won her sophisticated parts at first. Then she drew on her musical background by landing the Ronee Blakley part in Nashville—but dropped out when she concluded director Robert Altman "wanted a spoof. I had started to love the music and didn't want to see it or people who put silver dollars on their cars mocked."
Today Anspach lives in an unpretentious (and pool-less) cottage in Santa Monica with a live-in housekeeper and full-time babysitter. (Susan felt guilty about "not baking enough cookies" until her analyst told her to quit worrying.) Next up in movies is Running, with Michael Douglas ("It out-Rockys Rocky"). Anspach is also plotting another run on music by recording an LP—but without any help from Robertson (who has produced Neil Diamond). "I don't like to mix working and a relationship," she explains. One night a week she teaches a limited-enrollment acting course at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College that has a waiting list of 130. She's turned down a $750,000 commercials deal, "because there's so much of me still that's the lawyer-doctor trying to save the world. My life now is so full and alive," Susan goes on. "I believe in perfectibility, and I'm determined to be a self-actualized person. If it takes me until 65—that's what I'm gonna be."
'I was not going to die,' vowed Anspach; 'I was going to survive'