During her eight years on CBS' landmark All in the Family, she became the nation's most famous ditsy daughter, Archie Bunker's meringue-haired only offspring who often stood between Meathead and mayhem but seldom on her own two feet. Once that might as well have described the diminutive (5'1½") Sally Struthers herself, an insecure 22-year-old who when the show began had still not outgrown her mom's pet nickname for her: "Samantha Featherhead." No more. At 32, Struthers has matured in a dynamic three-year marriage to a powerhouse L.A. psychiatrist. She has become perhaps the most prominent champion of needy children around the world. And after giving birth to her own Samantha, now a 21-month-old dazzler, Sally is taking charge of a career that seemed to flounder after Family. Last month, for instance, she advised CBS to stifle any thoughts of reviving Gloria Stivic.
"I told them very nicely that I had sat around too long waiting to do other things to go back to that," says Sally. "I've made 827 cheese omelettes, and now I'm ready to make a soufflé." Her newest concoction is a far-from-fluffy TV movie this week, A Gun in the House, that deals ambivalently, and sometimes exploitatively, with violence and self-defense. "I'm a totally nonviolent person," says Sally, "but now I'm not so sure." Then she jokes grimly: "Someone will probably shoot somebody in an argument over the movie."
Sally herself could be forgiven for maybe wishing to plug a few network heavies. Her long-planned series, Me? On the Radio?, seems to have died before reaching the air. Struthers believes TV bosses deliberately foiled the show, which her Mother Struthers Productions was creating, in order to lure her back into a lucrative All in the Family spinoff. But what really rankles is that her husband, Dr. William Rader, 42, took the rap for meddling in the show. "People were laughing up their sleeves at him," Sally flashes angrily. "I asked him to help me. I learned how special he is, and I'm not so trusting anymore of studio execs."
At home, Sally's passionate pugnacity has warmed one of Hollywood's liveliest and seemingly most loving marriages. "One day the marriage is made in heaven. The next day it's 'Bill?!...' " says Sally. "If you're our neighbor on a hot night when the windows are open, you might hear us arguing about whether to have steamed broccoli or go out to eat. Bill should have a tattoo that says, 'Born to lecture,' " she adds. "And mine should say, 'Born to top!' "
"Never a dull moment," concurs Rader, who operates two nationally recognized alcoholic rehabilitation clinics, prepares twice weekly "Medpsych" reports for the local ABC-TV station and has just published Dr. Rader's No-Diet Program for Permanent Weight Loss. "I'm tough and she's tough, and at times that means conflict. But I'm a husband, not a psychiatrist, to my wife. I feel she's helped me more than I've helped her."
Struthers points out that "his ancestors came from the desert and mine from the cold country. He was raised on lox and bagels, and I'm a meat-and-potatoes girl," continues the Scandinavian-descended actress. "He's well-adjusted enough not to feel threatened by my paychecks. We allow each other the space to have success. If that's the barometer, then yes, we have a good marriage. I can't picture myself with anyone else," she adds seriously. "I'm morbid sometimes, and wonder, 'What if a Mack truck hit Bill?' I think I'd go on, but I wouldn't get a new daddy for Samantha. I would know I'd already had my husband." Then Sally grins mischievously: "That is...unless Gregory Peck wants me, or Walter Cronkite."
Their child is a measure of their bond. "Before I met Bill, I never wanted a baby. I was always the first one to say that it wasn't going to make me fulfilled, that I didn't need a carbon copy of myself. Then you fall in love with someone," Sally marvels, "and you want to be the mother of a child that is part of that man, the result of your loving each other." But Struthers, remembering the pain she felt when her own father remarried and adopted a child, worried how Rader's three children from a previous marriage (Jonathan, 19, and Nancy, 18, are in college; Deborah, 14, lives with her mother) would react to the birth. She put off revealing her pregnancy "until I could no longer zip up my pants," she recalls. "I don't think they were overjoyed, but they only needed proof that the new baby wouldn't affect their relationship with Bill. Now they're crazy about Samantha."
So, of course, is Struthers, though at first she found motherhood, even with a full-time nanny, "intimidating. I'm really amazed women do it again," she says, and doesn't plan to. "I don't need to be a babymaker." Part of her hesitation comes from being "such a child myself"—a feature her somewhat somber husband treasures. "Sally can literally fall on the floor laughing," says Rader. "What I'm trying to learn from her is that innocence, that freedom." Observes former Family co-star Jean Stapleton: "Sally was adorable, full of vitality. She would hide in the broom closet and then go 'Boo!' When [then 9-year-old] Danielle Brisebois joined the show," Stapleton laughs, "it was just like having Sally back."
For years now Struthers has channeled that vitality into volunteer work for the Christian Children's Fund—perhaps, as Rader notes, "because you can't have that humorous side and not feel the pain as well." Since joining the nonsectarian organization in 1971, after "checking it out and coming away thoroughly impressed," Struthers has become sponsor-correspondent to eight children on three continents and lent her face and name to the fund's familiar advertisements. "If you've been blessed with success and don't give anything back, something bad will happen to you," reasons Struthers, who is thankful that sponsorship has doubled to 250,000 during her participation. But it barely lessens her distress with prospective sponsors who "return folders because a child is not cute enough. I weep," says Struthers. "Why do people want to help at all, if not for the right reason?"
That sensitivity isn't surprising in someone who grew up in an "innocent, clean neighborhood of peach trees and willows," in Portland, Oreg., the younger daughter of a doctor and his civil servant wife. As a child she had to wear corrective shoes, sported a silver tooth and lugged a thermos of liquids to school daily because of a kidney problem. "I thought I had to keep 'em laughing to keep kids from hating me," Sally once joked. By high school, though, she was head cheerleader and captain of the girls' track team. After graduation, "upset and confused" with her own lack of direction but encouraged by her mother, she impulsively enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse. With two years of training, she progressed quickly from a commercial as a tap-dancing lemon to briefly bouncing on Jack Nicholson's knee in 1970's Five Easy Pieces. That led to hex All in the Family audition and eventually two Emmys.
Despite repeated rumors of romance (including a reported 1975 engagement to director Art Fisher), Sally was almost primly unhappy. "I was raised to believe good girls didn't randomly live with people. I lived with only one man before I met Bill," Sally says, "and that didn't turn out well. I was even frightened to call home. I remember once, about five years ago, visiting my married sister, Susan, in Oregon and crying and saying, 'All I want is a life like yours, to be in love and have it all sewn up!' "
Shortly thereafter Carroll O'Connor's wife, Nancy, introduced "a nice young doctor" at a taping. When Rader called Struthers' assistant to arrange a date and was told she was seeing someone else, he replied, "Well, put me on her list. And if she doesn't have a list, start one." Impressed—and in need of a date who owned a tuxedo for a black-tie dinner—Struthers phoned him back, and recalls, "By the end of our first date, I was madly in love." She was the first to suggest marriage. "Pretty brave of me," she brags. "I didn't come to him with alimony and three children."
Kidding aside, she's happy that "Bill's kids feel free to come over all the time and bring their friends" to the couple's 14-room Brentwood home, once owned by Rita Hayworth. Adds Bill, "She loves them enough to be firm with them and to listen to them. If something were to happen to me, Sally's relationship to them would be as close, or even closer."
Struthers finds it harder to keep up with her old Family. "I grew up with them," she muses. "Carroll O'Connor disapproved of my dates, like a real daddy. I still call him Daddy. Rob Reiner was funny and verbal and he taught me a lot about writing and coping. Jean is intelligent and religious—it took us six years to loosen her up!" she kids. But alterations, she figures, are inevitable. Sally is still looking for her own series, and this spring will make her Broadway debut in Wally's Cafe, a comedy with James Coco and Rita Moreno. The limited run will remove her just briefly from home. "I want a regular job, where I won't have to leave town," she says now. "Dreams change. if your priorities are family and children. I finally feel like I got it together, and it's nice."