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She made her career playing sexy, self-assured women. Women with pasts, the kind who light their own cigarettes, open their own doors. Wisecracking, given-to-outbursts women who don't often get invited to carefully choreographed affairs like this one. Yet here, at the Beverly Wilshire bash for the casts of Dynasty and its sequel, Dynasty II: The Colbys, the reclusive Barbara Stanwyck indisputably reigns as the belle of the ball. At 78, she has taken on the matriarch role in The Colbys (premiering this week after a two-hour send-off last Wednesday on Dynasty) and, by God, though she has relentlessly shunned parties and the press in the past, she's determined to give this spin-off series her all, which is quite a lot.

That doesn't mean she's happy about it. The usually formidable Stanwyck (with 85 films, four Oscar nominations and three Emmys to her credit) looks frail and skittish as she makes a late entrance nervously clutching the arm of her escort, Dynasty designer Nolan Miller. She is wearing one of his creations, a black cut-velvet-on-chiffon dress that sets off her trademark white hair, creamy complexion and astonishingly trim figure. But her first reaction is to hide in a corner, away from the action. She nods stiffly but politely to one person at a time and, as a reporter approaches, Miller makes the introduction: "Barbara dear, say hello. This gentleman would like to do a story." A pause. "With or without my help I'm sure," she snaps. Her gaze is cool, appraising—something like the look she gave Fred Mac-Murray in Double Indemnity just before she shot him.

So it's going to be that kind of night, though you can never tell with Stanwyck. Later she grabs the reporter's hand and invites him for a sit-down chat. She points across the room to Linda Evans, who is stunning in a red-and-black suit, also by Miller. "I've known Linda for years," she says in that husky whisper that can be heard across canyons. From 1965 to 1969 the inexperienced Evans played Stanwyck's daughter on the hit TV series The Big Valley. Linda, who lives only a block away from Stanwyck in Beverly Hills, still calls her "Mom" and says she relies on her for advice. It wasn't always so, says Stanwyck. "The first season on The Big Valley Linda didn't always listen to me and I didn't like that. But the second season we spent a lot of time together and she did better. That is, once she stopped giggling." Stanwyck (who once called her Bonanza competitor Lorne Greene "the Loretta Young of the West") is a no-nonsense pro on the set, expects the same of co-workers and speaks out when she doesn't get it. Tonight, though, it's Stanwyck's turn to be impressed. "Linda's a gem," she says, turning her head from side to side as she studies the 43-year-old Evans, "a rare and beautiful gem."

The room is chockablock with co-stars who could profit from watching how a star conducts herself. There's Heather Locklear stabbing her watercress salad, Emma Samms checking her makeup at the dinner table, George Hamilton displaying an infantile fascination with himself on the dance floor. Stanwyck, briefly lost in reverie, doesn't seem interested.

At the approach of Colbys co-star Charlton Heston (he plays her brother), she brightens. "Moses," she purrs, and melts into his arms. "Whenever I get into trouble on the set, which is frequently," she says, "I always ask, 'Where is Moses?' He can take care of this mess." Responds Heston: "This woman is the reason I did The Colbys." He doesn't even mind the reference to his 1956 role in The Ten Commandments: "I'm enchanted that she likes me well enough to make rude jokes about me. She's a rigid professional who provides an example for the younger members of the cast."

That example leaves her respected but not always popular. "Both Barbara and Heston are not exactly unsusceptible to their egos," says Dynasty new-comer Michael Praed, who plays Prince Michael. Adds Tracy Scoggins, who is cast as her niece: "She's rough on the younger players who don't have discipline, but I learn something every time she works." Nolan Miller recalls a recent incident when she chewed out one of the young male leads for tardiness. "He's never been late since," says Miller. Adds Heston, "On the set she's no Little Mary Sunshine. All of us take 50 minutes for lunch, 10 for makeup and we're back on time. The reason is simple. We know that Barbara will be waiting if we're not."

She goes easier on veterans such as John Forsythe. "I've been in this business for more than 40 years," says Forsythe, 67, "but I was nervous the day I had my first scene with Barbara. It must have been written on my face because at the first break in filming she told me two very bad jokes. She was gracious enough to put me immediately at ease. She's remarkable."

Talk to a random sampling of her co-stars in Hollywood's heyday (we tried Robert Preston, Fred MacMurray and Cesar Romero) and the result is a love letter every time. Preston still wears the St. Genesius medal (he's the patron saint of actors) she gave him 45 years ago. No one was more beholden to Stanwyck than the late William Holden. They co-starred in Golden Boy in 1939, and when the producers wanted Holden fired, Stanwyck fought to keep him in. Every April 1 (the start date of the picture) until his death in 1981, Holden sent Missy (a name Stanwyck's maid gave her that stuck) a dozen roses. When Stanwyck received an honorary Oscar for her life achievement in film in 1982, she reduced a nation to tears with her acceptance speech. "Bill always wanted me to win an Oscar," she said, her voice breaking. "Well, my Golden Boy, you finally got your wish."

For Heston, it's not hard to see why Stanwyck leaves a lasting effect on the men she encounters. "She's a great broad," he says. "To say that she is a great lady is not the same. She is a great broad in the classic sense of the word. Most actresses would be infuriated by being called a broad. Not Barbara. She comes from the era when men like Gary Cooper and Gable thought being a broad was the best possible thing for a woman to be."

And yet that era and its people are subjects Stanwyck won't discuss. "Who cares," she says. Those who do will face a brick wall. "She's a real clam," says pal Anne (Hotel) Baxter. Nolan Miller recalls Stanwyck's first meeting about The Colbys with producer Aaron Spelling. "She made four demands: She'd only work two days a week, never past 6 o'clock, never the week before Christmas and she'd never do interviews." Miller also remembers her telling Spelling, "If you don't like it, get yourself another girl."

Stanwyck's give-'em-hell manner stems from her days as a Brooklyn orphan. Her mother died when Barbara (nee Ruby Stevens) was 4, and shortly after her father deserted the family. After a childhood and adolescence spent in a series of foster homes, the Scotch-Irish Ruby found work as a Broadway hoofer, which she parlayed into film stardom after following her first husband, vaudeville headliner Frank Fay, to Hollywood in 1928. Fay's high living and heavy drinking reportedly plagued the marriage, which ended after seven years in 1935 (Fay died in 1961). More upsetting to Stanwyck than her troubled marriage is any mention of her adopted son, Dion Fay, 52. In 1959 Dion was arrested for selling pornographic material. He then sold a story titled "Does My Mother Hate Me?" to a tabloid. Stanwyck never spoke to him again.

Stanwyck's second marriage, to matinee idol Robert (Camille) Taylor, ended by his choice after 11 years in 1951. (Taylor wed actress Ursula Thiess in 1954 and fathered two children.) When he died of lung cancer in 1969, Stanwyck broke down at his funeral. Even after the divorce Stanwyck reportedly declared, "There will be no other man in my life."

She's been true to her word. Nolan Miller says Missy's idea of a good time is a quiet dinner with two or three good friends (among them Nancy Sinatra Sr., Jane Wyman, Miller and wife Sandra). She drinks only champagne, says Miller. "At our house Missy loves to eat in the kitchen and play with the dogs." But don't expect her to jump at just any invite. "If you ask her why she doesn't want to go somewhere, she'll say, 'Because I don't want to.' She never makes an excuse."

Stanwyck lived in the exclusive Trousdale section of Beverly Hills. This past June the house was badly damaged by fire. It was in that same house four years ago that she was awakened in the middle of the night by an intruder. He hit her on the head with his flashlight, then forced her into a closet while he robbed her of $40,000 in jewels. "The intruder took one thing she really cared about," says Miller, "an Art Deco cigarette case that Taylor gave her. It has her name on it, spelled out in a sunburst of rubies. It's just not the same seeing Barbara without that case."

If the image of a recluse living in the past is starting to intrude, forget it. Stanwyck remains a vital presence. She quit movies after co-starring with Taylor in The Night Walker in 1964 because she was tired, she says, of scripts "about grandmothers who eat their children." She wanted to do On Golden Pond with buddy Henry Fonda in 1981 (which might have brought the coveted Oscar), but producer Jane Fonda chose Katharine Hepburn. Instead Stanwyck did The Thorn Birds miniseries and won an Emmy by playing an old woman trying to seduce a young priest. Who can forget Stanwyck stroking Richard Chamberlain's bare chest? Certainly not Nolan Miller, who was on the set. "It's the only time I've known her to flub a line," he says. "After she messed up, she turned to the director and said, 'What the hell. It's the first time in 20 years I've had a naked man in my arms.' "

No one will ever see Stanwyck in "jeans, cold cream or curlers," says Miller, "even when she's sick." But that is more a matter of principle than vanity. She was only in her early 40s when her hair turned white, but she refused to dye it even when friends teased her about looking like Robert Taylor's mother. Tracy Scoggins asked her how she keeps her incredible skin (friends insist she's never had a facelift). "I never got the sun on it," said Stanwyck. She also has what the great ladies of the cinema had, adds Miller: "long waists, broad shoulders and narrow hips. And the way she walks! Like a panther."

The "panther" will be at it again on a future episode of The Colbys. When the producers suggested a love interest, Stanwyck jumped at the chance. What she didn't like was the list submitted of past-their-prime star names. "I'm not going to kiss an old man with a potbelly," she told the front office. Stanwyck wanted and got Joseph Campanella, 50ish, a rugged, lesser-known actor she worked with briefly on The Big Valley.

You'll have to wait until Thanksgiving to see their first big love scene, but Campanella remembers the filming vividly. After the clinch, "I said the last line, which was, 'You're my mystery lady.' The director cried, 'Cut!' but Barbara continued playing the scene. She said: 'Oh, God, hold me. Nobody has said that to me in years.' "

The cast of The Colbys is clearly in for an education. And that applies to more than smooching. Co-star John James, who plays her nephew, says Stanwyck "showed me some of the tricks she knows about riding horses." (Yes, she still does some of her own stunts.) James admits that "when Stanwyck is off-camera you can see she doesn't have a lot of energy. But when she's working...I just hope that when I'm half her age I have as much energy as she does."

Stanwyck puts a good face on her fatigue as she leaves the Beverly Wilshire. Unlike some of her colleagues, she knows she's got to conserve her face for the camera. "I want to go on until they have to shoot me," she said once, and the sentiment still holds. She always gets to work at 5 a.m., before anyone else, and, says Miller, "that's when she's happiest. She's giving them all lessons in professionalism on The Colbys' set." And lessons in something harder to define and even harder to teach: class.

  • Contributors:
  • James Grant,
  • Frank Sanello.