From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
As for Burt? "Put it to rest," she says

I DON'T WANT PEOPLE TO KEEP WORRYING about me, especially women," says Loni Anderson earnestly. "I want them to know that I'm doing fine, that I'm moving on with my life. They want to know I'm okay. People are very involved in my life. I didn't realize how much, until all this happened."

All this, of course, was the very messy—and highly publicized—breakup just five months ago of her five-year marriage to Hollywood icon Burt Reynolds, 57, a nasty split that, she says, caught her by surprise. Next came a string of bitter charges and countercharges that, the actress declares, are now mercifully behind her. "At first I was shocked, confused and numb," she says. "It was like a sudden death." And the process of recovery has not been easy. "You don't wake up one day and everything's suddenly okay," she says. "It's a gradual coming back."

For a month after the split, Anderson says, she didn't shed a tear. Then, "because I needed some way to start crying," she rummaged through her videotape collection, plugged a copy of the 1957 Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr weeper An Affair to Remember into her VCR, and let loose. "It was very cleansing," she remembers. "And then it was 'Onward."

With the divorce case grinding slowly through courts in Florida and California, Anderson has immersed herself in her new role as Casey MacAfee in the NBC sitcom Nurses, is about to launch her all-natural line of "Loni" skin-care products this month, and—most important—has found herself another guy. Last month, at Doris Day's "Sentimental Journey" charity fund-raiser, she stepped out in public for the first time with Los Angeles business attorney Geoffrey Brown.

"It's very new," says Anderson of her relationship with Brown, "and I care for him very much." Still, she says cautiously, "things have to go their own way and take their own course."

In the case of Anderson, 47, and Brown, 44, business led to pleasure. Last February, after a cosmetics company misused Loni's name in a telemarketing campaign, Anderson's advisers consulted the respected L.A. law firm of Musick, Peeler & Garrett. "There was a problem with a contract, and I called my attorney to get some legal advice," says Anderson's commercial agent, Nina Blanchard. "He brought in another member of the firm—Geoffrey Brown—and Loni and the two lawyers sat down together."

"I thought he was very attractive, very intelligent, very nice," recalls Anderson of her first meeting with the 6'1" lawyer with the smoky-blue eyes. "And I was very married. Still, just because you're married doesn't mean you're blind."

Brown recalls that his impression of Anderson was of a woman with "a very good business head. She's a very bright lady. She puts out a lot of effort, makes sure she understands what's going on, and then tries to get the best people to do what needs to be done and carry it through."

She evidently found just that in Brown, a native of Punxsutawney, Pa. (Yes—the very place where Punxsutawney Phil emerges to check for his shadow each Groundhog Day.) Struck by Geoff's good looks, Anderson at first tried to "fix him up with several of my girlfriends," but none of those matchups stuck. Then, just over a month ago, Brown invited her to Sunday brunch at the romantic Inn of the Seventh Ray, a rustic outdoor spot with idyllic views of the woods and streams of Topanga Canyon—and the nature of their relationship changed. "I don't know if it was a decision," says Brown of their romantic involvement. "It just kind of happened."

For her part, "because of what I was going through," says Anderson, she at first "didn't look at Geoff any other way" than professionally. But "when I came out of my shock, 1 noticed this man 1 really liked and admired [and wondered if] maybe there was something more to it." Since then, says Anderson's longtime friend and business partner, Nancy Nelson, "Loni is on cloud nine. Her quote was, 'I can't find anything wrong with him.' Geoff is a very classy guy."

Brown, a slim cross-country skier who favors Italian suits, graduated from the University of California at Davis, served for six years with U.S. Naval Intelligence during the Vietnam War, then got his law degree from UCLA. A genial type with a wide circle of friends, including many in the advertising and music industries, Brown says that "show business never has had a lot of allure for me." Fond of travel, especially to Europe and the Far East ("Travel is good for your soul," he says. "You learn to appreciate your own culture as well as different ways of living"), Brown resides in a middle-class section of Studio City. His one concession to L.A. Law-type ostentation is a red Jaguar XJS convertible. Brown, whose previous (and childless) marriage ended in divorce in 1978, has turned into a frequent companion for Loni and Burt's 5-year-old son, Quinton. "There's enough boyishness in Geoff that he likes to play," say Anderson. Still, she makes it clear that Brown knows better than to try to play father surrogate. "Burt is Quinton's daddy," she says firmly, "and Quinton has one mommy and daddy. Other people are just friends."

Anderson, about to be divorced for the third time and the mother of a 28-year-old daughter, Deidra, from a brief first marriage, has caught wind of criticism that she has begun dating too quickly after her split from Reynolds. She insists that "it's not fast. Geoff just happens to be a very special person who might have dropped into my life six years from now. He just happened to drop into it right now. Not that many nice guys come along."

And, says Anderson, Brown is a nice guy. "A friend said to me, 'It's like you looked in a catalog, listed everything you wanted, sent away for it—and you got it,' " she says. For example: He cooks. A lot. Every year Brown prepares a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for those he jokingly terms "orphan friends. If I can find a victim, I'll cook for them," he says. "I find it therapeutic. In my business, it's rare to see anything come to fruition quickly. So cooking's like instant gratification."

Even while Anderson is embarked on her fresh romance, though, she still has much unfinished business with her soon-to-be ex. On Oct. 25, a Florida circuit judge ordered attorneys for Anderson and Reynolds to make a financial settlement within 45 days. She currently lives in a Bel Air house that Reynolds rents for her, but soon she hopes to buy a place of her own. "Burt and I are going our separate ways. I wish him only happiness, and I'm sure he wishes the same for me," she says. "Put it to rest. We're going on with our lives."

Until custody arrangements for Quinton are finalized by the courts, Reynolds sees his son one day a week, every other weekend and alternate holidays. But at least one close friend of Reynolds's makes it sound as if the split has done him good. "Burt was miserable with Loni and has shown a great change since they have separated," says the friend. Now residing in Los Angeles, Reynolds is focusing on his CBS sitcom Evening Shade and, declares the friend, "has been very happy these last few months, especially with his love life. [Reynolds is dating Pam Seals, 37, a Tampa cocktail lounge manager.] In fact," adds the friend, "he's getting fat, because Pam is such a good cook. We're worried he might put on too much weight because he hasn't been used to home cooking. Loni never cooked."

According to Reynolds's executive assistant, Scott Jackson, "Burt was shell-shocked in the beginning and had a difficult time dealing with everything. But he's calmed down now and is allowing the wounds to heal. Burt wishes [Loni] the best. He's happy for her success. And he hopes that she harbors no animosity for him. He hopes she gets on with her life."

That, it seems, she has every intention of doing. Of her recent crisis, says Anderson, "You have your family and your friends, and if you're a celebrity, the problems are magnified by being on the front page. The bad part is when it's so public. But the good part is that you have a lot more support. The message," says Anderson, "is that you can come out on your feet."

And, if you're very lucky, be swept off them too.

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Lois Armstrong.