From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
JAMES BROLIN ADMITS IT: HE FANTASIZES ABOUT HAVING "a drive-through wedding." So in January, when he and main squeeze Barbra Streisand were zipping back to Malibu from a Lake Tahoe vacation, they impulsively took a swing through Laughlin, Nev.—home to cheap hotels, gambling dives and, yes, quickie marriages. "We could have done it without getting out of the car," says Streisand. Maybe it was the venue's gold-plated rings. Or the portrait-by-Polaroid. Either way, temptation gave way to reason. "Will our memories be right?" she asked Brolin. He turned the car toward home. "It was," he now agrees, just a tad wistfully, "very tacky."

And not exactly in keeping with Streisand's ultraglam image. So, you've got to wonder: Does a guy who does AAMCO commercials rate a two-time Oscar winner obsessed with perfection? Clearly, the answer is yes. Judging from the twinkle in Streisand's eyes these days—and the way she gushes like a gaga adolescent about her new love—this silver-haired hunk has done more than jump-start her transmission. At 55, Streisand has wealth (estimated at more than $100 million), power (she produces, stars in and directs her own films), more gold albums than anyone but Elvis and the Beatles (her latest, Higher Ground, has sold 5 million copies) and enough award statuettes to adorn her American Arts and Crafts furniture. But until a year and a half ago, when she met the former star of TV's Marcus Welby, M.D., Hotel and, yes, the 1980 bomb Night of the Juggler, Hollywood's top diva had yet to find a guy unintimidated by her high-profile romances (Ryan O'Neal, Don Johnson) or her reputation for being difficult.

"Jim isn't impressed by all the celebrity stuff," says Michael Bucher, a cinematographer and longtime friend. "He doesn't care." Says songwriter Linda Thompson, a Streisand pal for 11 years: "Beneath that world-famous icon there's a little girl, and Jim sees the vulnerability and tenderness. He gets her. It's like she's finally at home."

And a cozy place it is. In the fall of '96, the twice-divorced Brolin, 57, left his two-bedroom Pacific Palisades condo to move into Streisand's sprawling Malibu compound (complete with three individual homes, a pool and manicured gardens). And though they became engaged last April, when he slipped a 10-carat diamond onto her dainty, well-manicured hand, a wedding date has yet to be set. "We're trying to find the right place, so the press won't be around," Streisand says. Brolin knows how hard that can be. On Feb. 19 he scuffled with New York Daily News photographer Richard Corkery in Manhattan after Corkery shot the pair outside a movie theater (Corkery was treated for minor facial injuries; both he and Brolin have filed harassment complaints). "The guy was blocking my path," says Brolin. "There was no deliberate contact. My only thought when we're out in public is making sure Barbra is protected."

Perhaps because of the interest they generate, the couple often stay home, where their enthusiasm for one another is as sincere as it is syrupy. When Brolin says, "I've felt married almost from the moment I sat down next to her," she sighs and says, "Yeah!" And when he isn't in San Diego filming his syndicated TV series Pensacola: Wings of Gold, the two snuggle in Streisand's ocean-view bedroom. "We can bring newspapers, books and food into bed and have a wonderful time," she says. "We talk deeply, and we feel deeply." Says Brolin (who calls his fiancée Beezer): "We've been known to wake up, and suddenly it's dark again."

And when they venture out? "We love road trips," confides Streisand. Adds Brolin: "Barbra makes the best sandwiches and feeds them to me." Recently, Brolin even took Streisand—she of the Donna Karan clothes—to the local Target discount store. "Jim likes getting in the car and going," says the singer's good friend Marge Tabankin, director of the Streisand Foundation (a philanthropic organization, it benefits the environment, civil rights and other causes). "If they end up stopping in front of a cheap motel, that's what happens. She's having everyday experiences and loving it."

Love is a two-way street, of course. Hardly a gossip column headliner on his own, Brolin now reads stories about when and where they'll tie the knot. Last year it was Block Island, R.I., then Martha's Vineyard (neither site was ever considered). The relationship has meant other changes too. In 1986, when Streisand raised $1.5 million for Democratic campaigns at her house singing for stars such as Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn, Brolin—who had yet to meet her (and whose last movie had been Pee-wee 's Big Adventure)—drove by and, he recalls, "wished I was invited." On Feb. 5 he was at her side at the White House dinner for British Prime Minister Tony Blair (once an independent, he had switched to Streisand's team by the time they met). And if the flu hadn't forced Barbra to cancel her appearance at the Grammys on Feb. 25—she was scheduled to sing her duet "Tell Him" with Celine Dion—her beau would definitely have been there. "He's mesmerized by her talent," says Tabankin. "He has a desire for her to be as good as she can be."

For both, bliss has been a long time coming. The L.A.-bred son of a contractor and his homemaker wife, Brolin wed Jane Agee, an assistant casting agent who helped him land his Marcus Welby role (1969-76), just 12 days after they met in the mid-'60s. The night before the wedding, he says, "I knew I was making a mistake." Nonetheless, that union lasted two decades and produced two sons, Josh, now 30 and an actor, and Jess, 25, a film production assistant. The end came in the form of Mismatch No. 2, actress Jan Smithers (WKRP in Cincinnati). She and Brolin married in '86, had Molly, now 10, and split nearly three years ago. "I was in the middle of a divorce and getting married again," he says. "I couldn't see clearly."

Streisand's failed loves got more press—which may have been part of her problem. ("The media destroys relationships," she told Vanity Fair in '94.) Elliott Gould, father of her son Jason, now 31 and an actor, fell in love in the early '60s with the struggling actress. As she became the star of Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly!, Gould's career languished, and their eight-year marriage fizzled in 1971. Streisand dated Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, then began a volatile eight-year affair with hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters ("We laugh, we fight, we spit at each other," she told PEOPLE in 1977) before moving on to ice cream heir Richard Baskin and composer James Newton Howard, among others. "She's dated a lot," says Tabankin, "but in recent years there wasn't anything serious." Says Linda Thompson: "Occasionally we'd think about fixing up Barbra, but who has that kind of Rolodex?"

Romantically unfulfilled as she hit 50, Streisand, who has grown close to her mother in recent years and whose English-teacher father died when she was only 15 months old, looked inward. She forged a warm friendship with Virginia Kelley, President Clinton's mother, and conquered performance fears by taking the stage in Vegas on New Year's Eve '93. Kelley's death from breast cancer just days after attending the show forced Streisand to take stock. By '96, "I was liking my solitude. I had been given so many blessings, [I thought] maybe a relationship was an area I could never have—and that was okay."

Coincidentally, Brolin, who lived in his condo 20 minutes away, had also made peace with being alone. "All I needed was the newspaper, a great cup of coffee and a view of the ocean," he says. "For the first time I wasn't worrying about when I was going to find someone who made me complete." How could Cupid resist? In July '96, Jon Peters's ex-wife Christine invited Streisand to a dinner; Brolin was seated next to her. "She noticed my hair was gone," says Brolin, then sporting a buzz cut. Says Streisand: "It wasn't the beautiful white hair he has now. He looked like a bullet with stubble."

The bullet was speeding. "Within two minutes I was totally infatuated," says Brolin. "We talked all night about flying, computers, music." He had never seen Funny Girl or her concerts; she had never seen Marcus Welby. It didn't matter. Set to return to the editing studio that night to work on her film The Mirror Has Two Faces, Streisand never got there. Brolin instead drove her home, and they stood awkwardly in her foyer before he said good night. "God, no, nothing happened!" she says. "We were shy. But I went to sleep that night with a smile. I was amazed—like you could actually want to see someone again."

Two weeks later, Brolin went to Manila for a movie role. "I spent most of the money I made on phone calls," he says (total bill: around $10,000). Last fall they set up house in a thatched-roof cottage near Galway, Ireland, where he was filming his feature directorial debut, My Brother's War (it won Best Picture at the Hollywood Film Festival). Streisand rose each morning at 5 to cook eggs, "and when I came home the fire was lit," Brolin says. "It was charming." He also proposed, repeatedly, but Streisand—not ready to rush things—didn't accept until her 55th birthday on April 24. When he gave her the 10c diamond, she exchanged it for a small Tiffany stone surrounded by solitaires. "I wanted a ring I could wear every day," she says. "This one is perfect."

Just like her new life. Excitedly, Streisand says, "We want to buy a pickup truck." Brolin elaborates: "One with a bench seat, so we can drive around like in high school and go to movies sitting real close." And then there's that walk down the aisle—which will happen soon, they swear. "I've never had a big wedding," she says. "So sometimes I think about designing a beautiful wedding dress and the fantasy of a bouquet. But then I'll remember driving through...where was it, honey?"

"Laughlin," says Brolin, with a grin. He just might get his wish after all.

KIM HUBBARD
TODD GOLD in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Todd Gold.