Armand Assante's Real Weapon Isn't a Bow but a Cannon Named Dyan

updated 01/15/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/15/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

"We could laugh about the gossip," he says, "so we became friends"

He was the crippled brother in Sylvester Stallone's Paradise Alley and the Arab nemesis of Franco Nero in CBS's The Pirate, but Armand Assante's most emotionally fulfilling (but sometimes professionally vexing) role last year appeared only on the film of paparazzi. In a fusillade of flashbulbs, he became visible as Dyan Cannon's new man. "It is the most fantastic thing that's ever happened to me," exults Assante, 29, of the relationship that began when he played the humiliated husband to Cannon's brothel keeper in NBC's Lady of the House. "She is the demonstration of my manhood, just as I am of her womanhood. It is va-ro-o-o-m."

Indeed, so explosive is the pairing, feels Armand, that "gossip sheets had us married before we even had our first date. Actually, our friendship grew out of our intense interest in what we were doing," he says, referring to the tight 19-day shooting schedule of Lady (based on the real-life story of former San Francisco madam Sally Stanford). "We had to be mutually supportive. It was a grueling situation." That also meant meeting between flights as Cannon's career boomed with Heaven Can Wait and Revenge of the Pink Panther, while Assante winged between four roles, including one as an American Indian in John Frankenheimer's upcoming Prophecy. "I've been kind of exhausted for a year," Assante can smile now.

Though Cannon (who's some 12 years older than Assante) is rumored to be possessive, he's determined not to be an overshadowed Mr. Dyan Cannon the way she was once upstaged by Cary Grant before their bitter 1968 divorce. "I want to make it on my own—as an actor. By the time I met Dyan, I considered myself a pretty whole person," he asserts. "I had been around some corners."

The first were in Manhattan. His Italian father earned a paycheck as an advertising copywriter but was "a serious painter," while his Irish mother taught music. The family moved upstate to rural Cornwall, N.Y. when he was 7. In high school Armand was a jazz band drummer on weekends and an "indifferent" student. But then he was galvanized by admission to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York at age 17. "I went through drama school like an impassioned troubadour," he says. "They gave me tremendously weighty parts that most people don't touch until way later." Once he played a 45-year-old man, and agent Joan Scott happened to catch him. "I needed an actor like that for a movie," she recalls. "Imagine my surprise when a 19-year-old boy walked out. I started working with him that night."

Assante made his pro debut in 1969 with Imogene Coca in Josh Logan's Why I Went Crazy and—amazingly—was steadily employed in the theater from the start. But when he returned to New York from regional work in 1975, the first few months were lean: "I wouldn't ask my parents for money. I was getting depressed. It was the first time I had been in trouble." And last. Scott steered him into soaps like The Doctors, study with Mira Rostova (the celebrated coach of Montgomery Clift). Broadway and then to Hollywood in 1977. In less than three months he had a guest shot on Kojak, where he ran into a kibitzing Sly Stallone, a fellow alumnus of The Lords of Flatbush. Sly cast him in Paradise Alley, and that began Armand's hectic year.

His ideal schedule would include—as Dyan's does now—time for writing as well as acting. "We maintain separate residences but we spend a lot of time together," Assante says. He rents an isolated, sparely but elegantly furnished two-bedroom pad in the Hollywood Hills while she owns a Malibu beachfront, which she shares with daughter Jennifer Grant, 12. "We both like quiet, real quiet," Armand insists. Both he and Dyan have touched base with trendy philosophies. ("Too much thought is destructive," says Assante. "That rips us off from the present.") He reads Zen as well as Jean-Paul Sartre. Her padded Primal Scream room is now used for storage, but she's still a vegetarian. He keeps his 5'10" frame down to 160 pounds by thrice-weekly workouts and one high-protein meal a day. They "almost never" go out, but find time to jog up to four miles on the beach.

"We would love to work together," says Assante of the future, though recently no less a director than Michelangelo Antonioni approached him to discuss future projects. As for marriage, Armand says, "It would have to evolve. If it becomes an issue, then it's a problem. But we feel we have a certain connection," he glows, "and we also want to have fun."

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