Doucett and Shandling, says a friend, "are like a '90s Burns and Allen"

NOTHING CONNECTED WITH COMEDIAN Garry Shandling, the painfully self-conscious star of HBO's hit comedy The Larry Sanders Show, is, it seems, without its perplexing wrinkles. While that probably applies to his six-year relationship with fiancée and costar Linda Doucett, it is equally obvious that Doucett, 35, is by no means a prune. Obvious because the 5'7", 118-lb. Doucett is wearing a see-through blue dress with little more than a G-string beneath it and is posing in the Malibu sunshine below Shandling's beachfront house for a Playboy photo crew.

The genesis of the shoot, which culminates in a six-page layout in the September issue of Playboy, is as peculiar as any episode of Sanders, the Emmy-nominated, dizzyingly close-to-reality spoof. Shandling, 43, plays a fictitious late-night talk show host whose guests have included such real-life notables as David Letterman and Carol Burnett. In May a Playboy photo editor visiting the Sanders set had mentioned a possible upcoming pictorial on women in television. What a coincidence, said Doucett. On a Sanders episode (scheduled to be telecast Aug. 4), her character, Darlene—a dim but sexy backstage assistant—ends up posing for a layout after an appearance by Playboy editor-in-chief Hugh Hefner on the show-within-a-show. Well, suggested the photo editor, would Doucett like to follow suit?

"I thought, 'There it goes again,' " says Doucett, of the show's tendency to blur the line between TV and reality. For Doucett, a former model who broke into acting as an extra in videos for the Beach Boys and Toto, the hardest part of posing was reckoning with "how revealing it is." Her conclusion: "I said, 'Well, at the least, maybe Garry'll get a lot of material out of it.' "

Doucett says she wouldn't have done the shoot had Garry objected. But in fact Shandling—whom Doucett expects to marry by the end of the year—did approve, in his own ambivalent way. "I'm a very private person, so it's not the most comfortable situation," he says. "[But] I felt that if it was something Linda wanted to do, I would completely support it."

Doucett's turn to feel unsure of herself came when she told her father, Nevin, a retired power plant contractor, about the shoot. (Her mother, Mary, died in 1980.) "He wasn't necessarily supportive, but he said, 'I understand,' " Linda says. "He's so happy I'm getting married he didn't care about the career stuff."

Growing up in Springdale, Pa., the youngest of four children, Doucett began modeling in high school and pursued it after graduating in 1975, first in Denver and then in London. There she was briefly engaged to Ken Hensley, keyboardist for Uriah Heep. But the British rock scene exhausted her ("The fast lane got too fast"), and she headed to L.A., where she studied acting, worked as a makeup person on Love Connection and eventually landed roles on The Young and the Restless and General Hospital.

She met Shandling, then the star of the form-bending It's Garry Shandling's Show, in 1987 at a party. "Garry was really uncomfortable," she says, recalling her attraction to him. "That's his act. I found it so funny." Last year, after auditioning for the part of Garry's wife, Doucett won the role of Darlene. "She's a perfect fit," says Shandling.

And she fits perfectly offscreen too (even if the constant companions still keep separate homes). "Linda is a marvelous straight man for him," says Janet Alhanti, their friend and acting instructor. "They have great interaction—she gets his humor."

And both, it appears, are adept at turning life into fodder for comedy, even if, as Doucett says, "we haven't really found the point of view that makes my posing nude funny yet." Chances are they will.

TOM GLIATTO
TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles

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  • Tom Cunneff.