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People Top 5
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- March 21, 1983
- Vol. 19
- No. 11
Live from Litchfield! It's the Improbable Duo of Dick Ebersol and Susan Saint James
See, it's about this 35-year-old TV wunderkind Dick Ebersol, who's producer of this seminal NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live, only he's no Hollywood type. In fact he's East Coast and a Yalie, but he weds this West Coast actress chick named Susan Saint James, 36, who in her spacey past married and had kids named Sunshine (a girl) and Harmony (a boy). She and Dick now have their own 3-month-old child, Charlie, and they live in this vast 16-room Colonial in Litchfield, his horse-country Connecticut hometown. That's where the snow comes in. You see, they've had it with L.A. fast chic, and she's fallen in love with life in a small Yankee town where "the kids take the bus, get hot lunches and walk to catechism after school." The thematic question is, can she live there even with Rose Kennedy's former cook to help and still...
Enough. Any way you cast them, Dick Ebersol and Susan Saint James are an improbable pair. She is successful, flaky and mainstream all at once. She started out on TV at 20 in The Name of the Game, won an Emmy in its first year as a series, then starred in McMillan & Wife and remains in big demand. But at various stages she has also dropped acid, turned vegetarian, gotten an ankle tattoo and churned through so many romances she once said she falls in love "with somebody every day." But then, too, she helps retarded kids and is a good mother and a total theatrical pro.
Ebersol, for his part, is a showbiz preppy. He was, at 28, the youngest vice-president ever at NBC, and today he runs one of the tube's nuttiest shows as coolly as if it were Brooks Bros. Though he's buttoned-down enough to balk at having video games at home, he enjoys a high-flying lifestyle that includes a Brentwood, Calif. house (now rented out) and a Manhattan apartment as well as the Litchfield place. Says Susan: "Dick has the most traditional background, but there's a bit of Caesars Palace in him."
Saint James knows her men, to be sure. At 20, she married scriptwriter Richard Neubert—"We were a good match," she still says—but split a year later because of career conflicts. At 24, she wed Name of the Game makeup man Tom Lucas, whom she had lived with for two years and who is the father of Sunshine, 10, and Harmony, 8. Though she still finds Lucas "fun and great," they parted six years ago. Then, she says, "I went through a string of wonderful boyfriends [among them actors George Hamilton and Dennis Christopher] whom I still talk to. I also got engaged a lot [Stephen Stills and filmmaker Bruce Lewis made that list], but that's my habit. I never married anyone I was engaged to. For me, getting engaged was the grown-up way of going steady." In fact she thought she'd never marry again—until she met Ebersol in October 1981. Then "I knew I was going to take down my old boyfriends' pictures and ask him what he wanted for breakfast."
Their first encounter was professional. She was in Manhattan to guest-host an SNL show, and he went to her hotel to discuss it. He was untypically Hollywood, arriving at 4 p.m. in suede pants ("the only time I ever wore them in her presence") and asking for a Scotch (he drinks sparingly). Susan was starring in the columns around that time as Sen. Ted Kennedy's new flame, because they had been sailing together. Actually, she was invited to Hyannis Port by Teddy's sister Eunice Shriver, whom Susan knows through their work for the Special Olympics. But Susan encouraged talk of a Kennedy romance because, she admits, "I loved the attention."
Nonetheless, says Dick, "We got along famously." After rehearsals the next day at NBC's Studio 8-H in Rockefeller Center, they went to Xenon, the trendy disco. "I had never been there," he says. "We sat and smooched a little, and when we looked up all the paparazzi were surrounding us. The Daily News ran almost an entire page of pictures, and a few upper-echelon types at NBC wanted to know if this was going on every time Ebersol had a female host. By the end of the week we were nuts about each other."
Seven weeks later they wed at her house (now for sale) in Hollywood Hills. For months they commuted between coasts—"really debilitating," she says—until finally, last November, he bought the Litchfield house. "I had a lot of fears about the kids adjusting" to the East, she admits, but they have. "In the land of milk and honey," Ebersol says, "the playground was a cement square, and if the children wanted to play with classmates, you had to drive 10 miles. Parenting in L.A. was really chauffeuring." Says Susan: "They were going to one of those groovy schools where the parents had monthly conferences with the teachers. Here they have regular report cards and get nervous about how they're going to do. That's better."
Little Charlie arrived in the same Connecticut hospital where Dick was born. Though he had missed their natural childbirth classes, "On the way to the hospital we stopped at the drugstore to buy a stopwatch, and Suzie told me what to do."
The pregnancy, she says, "was tough. I gained 50 pounds and, being older, the body is more willing to fall out of shape. But I'm a workout person." When she hosts SNL again April 16, she promises, "I'll be down to 120."
Duncan Dickie Ebersol—"three family names," he explains—is the son of a Litchfield lawyer. Dick's ambition was to be a sportswriter, and while in France for his high school senior year he got a gofer job for ABC's Wide World of Sports, which was filming at Le Mans. When he enrolled at Yale, he resumed working for ABC Sports. "I did my classes Monday through Wednesday, then flew off to wherever the NBA was playing." After earning his degree in history, Ebersol went full-time with ABC before joining NBC in 1974. By 1976 he was head of the network's late-night programming. That year he married Susan Stafford, then hostess of NBC's Wheel of Fortune. They parted 18 months later, but, says Dick, "I learned to be communicative. That's been an advantage with Suzie: She can outcommunicate anybody."
Ebersol helped launch the original SNL in 1975, moved on to other projects, then took direct charge in 1981 when the show was beset with soft ratings and hard reviews. On set, he devours cigarettes (up to four packs on Saturdays) and diet drinks while conferring with stars Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo and dealing with late scripts, network censors and unpredictable guest hosts. "At least two, who shall go nameless, turned up stone drunk," he says. While SNL is still TV's top-rated late-night entry, out-drawing even NBC's own Johnny Carson, and is expected to be renewed for another year, it has yet to regain the sparkling Nielsens it had in the Gilda Radner-Chevy Chase-John Belushi days. "The old show was a great victory party for the youth movement after Watergate and Vietnam," says Ebersol. "But all the dividing lines have grayed. We comment more on the human condition than the political condition. That falls on deaf ears now."
Susan's life mirrors that change. She was raised mostly in Rockford, Ill., where her father is chairman of Testor Corp., the model plane company. She got into Connecticut College after graduating from a Catholic high school, but quit to model in Manhattan. She made the cover of Seventeen her first year and was soon commuting between New York and Paris. But at 20 she veered off to Hollywood, TV and a kind of happy-hippie involvement in leftist politics with pals like Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden.
If she is different today, Fonda suggests, maybe it's because "Susan is like me—she needs structure and solidity in her life. She can be scattered when she's a single woman, but when she has a happy relationship, then she has parameters in her life." Susan's analysis differs. "Having kids de-radicalizes you a bit," she says. "I had a falling out with the Catholic Church in my radical days, but now I realize I can do more being active in the church. Plus it's the only way I know to pray. That gives a deeper sense to life." She is raising her children as Catholics.
While never politically active himself, Ebersol had an antiwar connection. His half brother is Josiah Bunting, the Rhodes scholar novelist (The Lionheads) who in 1972 resigned his West Point teaching job and Army commission to protest Vietnam policy. Says Dick: "I had strong anti-Vietnam opinions, but I was in no position to be on the front lines as Suzie was. In those days, most of my time was spent covering the games of America."
For now, Susan's largely baby-bound and content to put acting on hold. "Dickie worried I might not find enough to do in Litchfield, but that's never been my problem. I usually get overbooked. My career is at a point where a little distance might be good."
"Susan's dream was to be a movie actress, find a nice guy and retire," Dick says. "Mine was to succeed, find a nice girl and live someplace other than the center of craziness. So if you define us as nice, we've succeeded."
- Richard K. Rein.
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