After 25 eclectic years in show business, actor Ron Leibman has finally snared his best role. No, it's nothing like the unhinged lunatics he played in films such as Where's Poppa? and Slaughterhouse-Five. Nor does it resemble the fast-talking union do-gooder in 1979's Norma Rae or the lecherous nightclub owner he plays in Rhinestone.

Rather it's the role he assumes each night offcamera as wife Jessica Walter's leading man and best-supporting father figure to her 12-year-old daughter, Brooke. "I didn't have to read for it," cracks Leibman, 46, "and nobody cares about the grosses of my last film." "I know it sounds corny, but it's true," agrees Walter, 43, whose first major screen part was as the neurotic gossip Libby in 1966's The Group, and who now appears on Trapper John, M.D. "The best role I've ever played is Mrs. Ron Leibman."

The couple should be forgiven for a certain amount of swooning—they've been married for only one year. Leibman believes it was loneliness that brought them together when they met in August 1982. Walter doesn't—she says it was love. He had been divorced in 1981 from actress Linda (Alice) Lavin after a 12-year, childless marriage (she is now married to actor Kip Niven), and Jessica had long since recovered from the 1978 breakup of her 12-year marriage to Ross Bowman, a former Broadway stage manager who is now selling real estate in California.

Actress Brenda Vaccaro, a longtime pal of both, played the pivotal matchmaking role. As Leibman tells it, he was a houseguest at Vaccaro's Benedict Canyon home while filming Romantic Comedy. "Another one of his big hits," hoots Walter, as they relax in their airy, eight-room colonial-style Westwood home. Leibman ignores her playful jab and continues: "There was this lovely woman who kept visiting...this tall, sexy, intelligent woman who had this beautiful daughter." He was immediately attracted—and paralyzed with fear. "The fact that Jessie was an actress frightened me," he admits. "I'd been married to an actress, and I understood the difficulties. I also knew I would be getting involved with two people, not just one. It scared me."

While he soul-searched, Vaccaro pushed. "She's like a Jewish mother even though she's Italian," says Leibman. Walter mimics Vaccaro's urgings: " Take her for Chinese, Ronnie. It won't be so terrible.' 'Go with him for Chinese, Jessie. You don't have to marry him.' " Vaccaro happily defends her instincts: "They come out of the same mold. She's stalwart and disciplined, and he's a real mensh."

Eventually they did go out, but not before the phone calls, which Walter calls "the 5 o'clock therapy sessions." "I got home early one day," says Leibman, "and the phone rang. It was Jessica." They talked for an hour, and at the end of the conversation he asked her if he could call her again the next afternoon. "I was too frightened to ask for a date," he says. Instead they talked for two hours daily on the telephone for the next two weeks until Leibman finally summoned the courage to invite Walter—where else—"for Chinese." Later in her car, he says, "I grabbed her and gave her a kissarooni." "We're talking major kiss here," Walter confirms. "I don't know what overcame me," says Leibman, "but you know what they say about first kisses? Well, it's true. You can tell."

Leibman was still Mr. Fear on their next date several days later. "He was half an hour late and so nervous he drove by my street 10 times," claims Walter, who was jittery enough to have spilled wine and food on her white dress all evening. Such adolescent awkwardness was simply the tip-off to two people old enough to know better that something was happening. "He's the most interesting person I've ever met," says Jessica. "Can you imagine a man who's handsome and sexy and also subscribes to the New Republic?"

She agreed to join him in Australia for two weeks while he was shooting his new film Phar Lap about a champion racehorse. After she returned to the U.S. the phone calls continued. The bill for two-and-a-half months was $7,700. It was a good investment. The time together confirmed Leibman's feelings about Walter. "She's gorgeous and intelligent," he says. "And Brooke is such a wonderful kid. I saw there was something very good going on."

When he returned to the States in December, Leibman invited Jessica and Brooke to New York for the holidays. On New Year's Eve, says Walter, "he got down on one knee to propose and got his foot caught in his bathrobe." "I fell right onto her," he laughs. "It was a Jerry Lewis proposal." After six months of cohabitation, which Walter insisted on ("I'm too old for mistakes"), the couple married in her backyard.

The euphoria continues. "There are no axes to grind," says Walter. "Instead of fighting, we laugh at each other." When pal Don Brinkley, executive producer of Trapper John, M.D., first heard of the marriage between the "two very dominant, very volatile personalities," he asked, "Who's going to listen in this house?" A few months later Leibman answered him: "We both do. We learned how."

Leibman also learned about step-parenting. He says he has never sought to replace Brooke's father. "I'm this other guy, an addition to her life rather than a minus," he says. "He's like a big kid sometimes," says seventh-grader Brooke of her stepdad. "He's funny, generous and loving."

Leibman's less than idyllic childhood was spent in grand style on Manhattan's Central Park West. (His father was a dress manufacturer, his mother a housewife.) An only child, he was stricken with polio when he was 6. The following year his parents divorced. Five years later he contracted spinal meningitis, and it took him three months to recover. He eventually enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan, where he discovered his love for the theater, then worked as a shoe salesman and a cabbie to pay his way at the Actors Studio in New York. He started out professionally in a summer theater production of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. In 1979 he won an Emmy for his highly acclaimed TV series, Kaz. A year later he starred on Broadway in Neil Simon's I Ought To Be in Pictures.

It was during the 1969 Broadway run of John Guare's Cop-Out that Leibman met Lavin. Of their years together all he'll say is, "Linda is married again, I hope happily. That's all you really wish for people you spent that amount of time with. To compare her with Jessica would be totally unfair," he adds. "All I can say is that Linda is shorter."

Indeed, Walter's 5'8" statuesque form and husky voice have typecast her for mature-women parts ("I was playing mothers to 22-year-olds when I was 35") and bitches ("A great release—I'd rather play those parts than Miss Vanilla Ice Cream"). She grew up in New York, one of two children of now divorced parents. Her father plays double bass in the New York City Ballet Orchestra and teaches at Juilliard, and her mother is a retired public school teacher.

Walter attended the High School for the Performing Arts but passed up college to enter show business. A onetime regular on the soap Love of Life, Walter got her first Broadway part in Advise and Consent in 1961. Her first husband-to-be was the stage manager. They married five years later and moved to Southern California, where Brooke was born.

In Hollywood Walter's career continued to grow. Among other roles, she played the psychotic killer in Play Misty for Me opposite Clint Eastwood, and she won an Emmy for her brief 1974 television series Amy Prentiss. Last year she was a conniving TV villainess in the short-lived Bare Essence and filmed Mr. Hot Shot, which is due out this winter with Matt (Tex) Dillon.

So far there have been no career conflicts. "I pray for Ron's success," she says. "The happier he is, the happier I am, and I know he feels the same way about me."

The only subject the twosome seem to argue about with conviction is which coast to live on. Ron favors the East. "You have constant information, and kids really learn how to walk those streets," he contends. "L.A. is underrated," counters Walter. "Also you're happier where the work is, and the work is here." They've settled on bicoastal for now, keeping Leibman's New York apartment but living most of the time in L.A. "It's like living in Vermont," figures Leibman. "New York is only a five-and-a-half-hour ride away." Nevertheless, he has begun putting down California roots—literally. "One of the first things I did after we married was to plant three trees in the backyard," he says. "They are still doing very well. Sigmund, do you hear me?"

  • Contributors:
  • Lois Armstrong.