In the onscreen romance department, actress Shelley Fabares has seen her share of hunks and lunks. She has flirted with Fabian, been ogled by Elvis and even now, at 47, is catching passes from TV's lovable but loutish Coach, played by Craig T. Nelson. When it comes to leading men, Fabares doesn't dine with the screen's Big Thinkers.

Ah, but cut to the home front. When her day's work as Coach's oh-so-tolerant girlfriend, newscaster Christine Armstrong, is done, Fabares retreats to the cozy five-bedroom Sherman Oaks, Calif., home she shares with hubby Mike Farrell, 52. "He has expanded my whole world," says Shelley of the onetime M*A*S*H star turned human-rights activist she married more than six years ago. "Nothing in Mike's life is casual. He's very serious."

With Farrell's help, Fabares says, she has weathered a string of personal woes that have taken some of the pleasure from her current sitcom success. For his part, Farrell credits the actress with brightening the somber image he developed after M*A*S*H. "People talk about how much more fun I am," he says. "Shelley's allowed people to understand I'm not this unapproachable doomsayer."

The pair first met in 1970, when Fabares guest-starred on an episode of Farrell's short-lived series The Interns. But it wasn't until 12 years later, when they saw each other again at a CBS affiliates convention, that their casual acquaintance began turning less casual. Both had become divorced in the interim, Farrell from his wife of 17 years, actress-screenwriter Judy Farrell, and Fabares from record mogul Lou Adler. After polite hellos at the convention, Farrell invited Fabares for coffee, then later to an exhibit of photos and films he had made on a recent trip to Central America.

"I had just gotten back from a tour of refugee camps [in Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua], and I was reeling from the terribly inhuman treatment I had seen," he recalls. Says Fabares: "I knew nothing about Central America."

She would before long. Within a year, Farrell proposed in a Topanga Canyon health-food restaurant, and Fabares accepted. In 1984, a year after M*A*S*H folded its TV tents, the couple married at the Pacific Palisades home of Fabares's aunt, veteran actress Nanette Fabray (who now plays her mother on Coach).

Their early days together were hardly easy. For starters, Farrell's two children from his former marriage (Mike, now 20, and Erin, now 17) didn't accept their new stepmom all at once. "The divorce was very hard on the kids," says Fabares. "It took a lot of love, patience, courage and strength, but now they have two solid homes, which is what we all wanted."

Then came darker struggles. Donna Reed, a close friend who had played Fabares's TV mom on the 1960s sitcom The Donna Reed Show, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Soon after Reed fell ill—she died in 1986—Fabares's own mother, Elsa, began exhibiting signs of Alzheimer's disease, and eventually Shelley and her sister, Smokey, now 50, had to put her in a nursing home.

"When Donna and Mother were ill at the same time, mentally I was totally gone," says Fabares, whose father, James, a real estate broker, died in 1977. "Physically, I was gone 98 percent of the time. I just stayed at the hospital for months, and never, ever did Mike question it. He was always easing my mind. He ran everything for me. He has become my safe harbor. To have his strength when everything else is out of control...that's the unbelievable gift he has given."

For Fabares, the decline of her mother was particularly painful, since Elsa, now 79, had played such a major role in her career. It was Elsa who got Shelley into modeling at the age of 3, a move that led to appearances on television series in the early '50s. Teen stardom as Donna Reed's TV daughter came next, as did a brief moment in the pop music spotlight, thanks to Fabares's 1962 hit single, the classic "Johnny Angel."

By the mid-1960s, the Los Angeles native had moved into movies, costarring with Elvis Presley in Girl Happy, Spinout and Clambake. In the '70s she returned to sitcom land, appearing as Danny Thomas's daughter-in-law in The Practice, as a wheelchair-ridden tyrant in Forever Fernwood and as Bonnie Franklin's bitchy business partner in One Day at a Time.

Although Farrell grew up in West Hollywood—with school chums that included Natalie Wood and Ricky Nelson—his memories of childhood focus more on his carpenter father. Michael "Joe" Farrell, than on dreams of stardom. "He was a very tough guy," says Farrell. "I lived in terror of him. I was afraid I would do something wrong, that I would not live up to what he expected me to be."

When his father-died in 1956, 17-year-old Farrell took responsibility for his mother. Agnes, now 84, older sister Sally and younger siblings Kathy and Jim. Reading movie magazines, he says, lightened the load and "bespoke a world to me that was this kind of fairyland. Stardom would solve all my problems."

And it certainly seemed to, at least for a while. Early roles in commercials and television series like Love, American Style led to a stint on the soap opera Days of Our Lives and two short-lived prime-time series. Then in 1975 he signed on for the first of eight years as Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt on M*A*S*H—"the most important event in my career," he says.

Since then, however, Farrell has turned down a "frightening" number of other TV roles. "Watching television periodically offends me," he says. "TV tends to dehumanize, sensationalize and exploit rather than inform or entertain in a hopeful way." Although he continues to act and produce for TV and film, he spends most of his time working for prison reform and on human-rights campaigns around the world. Last summer he traveled to the Middle East as part of an interreligious peace delegation, and this year his lobbying on behalf of a convicted murderer-rapist in Virginia, who Farrell believes is innocent, helped get the man's death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

Fabares, who has become active in fund-raising for the Alzheimer's Association, sometimes accompanies Farrell on his missions, as do his children. "I wanted them to see things for themselves, so they understand that fighting for human rights is not some herky-jerky thing Dad goes off to do out of some neurotic need," he says.

Still, all the hurly-burly sometimes makes it "a struggle just to find time to be quiet and sit," says Fabares. Farrell, when home alone, tends to his garden and woodworking projects (his latest: a shelter for the garbage cans). "In this business, things are never substantial; it's always about maybes," he says. "Being able to hammer two pieces of wood together gives me a real sense of accomplishment."

For her part, Fabares often spends her own off-camera time with longtime pal Bonnie Franklin or with Annette Funicello, a friend since seventh-grade catechism classes. "We speak the same language," says Fabares. "You know, I was not a Mouseketeer, but a lot of people think I was."

The image, at least, often seems to fit both Fabares and Farrell. "The typical show-business rules do not apply to them," says Craig T. Nelson, Fabares's Coach costar. "They have a superior intellect, and they really are nice people." Bill Fagerbakke, who plays the dim-witted Dauber Dybinski on the ABC series (and has named his puppy after the actress), agrees. "I told Shelley once that it seems they never argue, but she claimed they have ferocious fights. I think she's lying," he jokes. "Their niceness is amazing."

And after six years, it seems destined to last. "There is a light inside her that is just magical," Farrell says of his mate. "I find her a constant source of rejuvenation." Responds Fabares: "Mike grounds me, and I think I pull him out sometimes. It's a nice mix."

—Cynthia Sanz, John Griffiths in Sherman Oaks

  • Contributors:
  • John Griffiths.