IT LOOKED LIKE SHOW BUSINESS AS USUAL as the celebrity sauntered out of Hollywood's trendy Cafe Med at about 1 p.m. on July 30 after lunching with producers. Then James Farentino noticed three strange men in the parking lot as he approached his car. At first he thought they were carjackers. In fact they were plainclothes L.A. policemen. The cops walked up to the 55-year-old Farentino, slapped a set of handcuffs on him and arrested the star of stage, screen and a future TV miniseries, Dazzle—based on Judith Krantz's novel—for violating an antistalking law that was meant, in part, to protect the famous from crazed fans. "This is the first case that I'm aware of," says Liz Gertz, deputy city attorney, "in which we have a celebrity defendant as well as a celebrity victim."

Farentino stands accused of harassing and threatening his former lover, Tina Sinatra, 45, the youngest of Frank's three children. To those who know the actor as a suave ladies' man, the obsessive behavior that prosecutors described was shocking. Could the former husband of actresses Michelle Lee, Elizabeth Ashley and Debrah Mullowney really be the same person who made eerie, anonymous phone calls and sent scary faxes? And who in their right mind would stalk a Sinatra? As Jay Leno said last week on The Tonight Show, "How stupid is this guy? You think maybe he couldn't afford to see Dr. Kevorkian and this is the cheapest thing he could come up with?"

Many people who know Farentino and the twice-married Tina Sinatra, however, were not so surprised. The pair, during their five-year relationship, had a reputation for volatile behavior. "Sometimes they were the perfect couple," says a friend of Farentino's, "and other times there'd be raging fights—yelling, screaming, name-calling, throwing things."

The couple parted ways "for the last time," according to Farentino's lawyer, Blaine E. Greenberg, on Feb. 22. But their onetime habit of faxing late-night love letters to each other, Sinatra alleges, soon degenerated, at least on Farentino's part, into a form of electronic hate mail. On one occasion, she says, she came home to find a fax that said, "When you get back, you will die." Sinatra also claims to have received a call from her former beau saying, "Knock it off, kid. You're going to die, and so am I."

A week after his arrest, Farentino called a press conference to heatedly deny the charges. Greenberg, his attorney, suggests that some unnamed third party was involved and insists he has evidence that proves his client's innocence. "On at least one of these occasions [in which Sinatra was allegedly threatened], Jim was in a restaurant with eight people," says Greenberg. On another, Farentino said at his press conference, he was with "at least 12 witnesses. It would be quite impossible for me to have made these calls."

But the prosecutor feels just as confident about her charges, which carry a maximum sentence of four years. There were, says Gertz, "a series of phone calls [made to Sinatra] that were heard by more than one party in which [Farentino] identified himself. He said he was willing to do whatever it took to get her back." And, she adds, "everyone listening on the line felt that he had been drinking."

That charge, says Farentino's lawyer, is a particularly "tough allegation for Jim." That's because the actor is, says Greenberg, "a recovering alcoholic who attends meetings" and has been sober "for a good long time." In fact, he says, the whole legal mess, which will continue with Farenlino's arraignment in court on Aug. 27, "is disturbing Jim's life terribly, impugning his reputation."

No doubt the case has turned Farentino's life upside down. Yet some mutual friends of his and Sinatra's are predicting that the case will have very little long-term effect on the principals. "I wouldn't be surprised," says one acquaintance, "if they still got back together someday. They're both passionate people with a huge capacity for cruelty to each other and a huge capacity for love."

ROB MEDICH
LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Lynda Wright.