What Made Joan Van Ark Run (Away)? Knots Landing, but Her Newsman Husband Persuaded Her to Take the CBS Series

updated 02/11/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/11/1980 01:00AM

'I recall us discussing how our relationship would never work,' he says

The promised land for the ambitious in TV these days is no longer New York or Los Angeles but Dallas. When actress Joan van Ark was offered a featured part in two episodes of the CBS blockbuster, she hesitated. "They wanted me to leave the next morning for Texas," recalls van Ark, 34. "It wasn't just the short notice; I didn't know if I wanted to play the mother of a 16-or 17-year-old girl." At the urging of husband John Marshall, 35, a top correspondent for the NBC-owned station in L.A., she took the part. It was just as well for her career since the guest spot led to starring in the new Dallas spin-off, Knots Landing.

Joan has settled into the role of Valene Ewing, J.R.'s California sister-in-law and down-and-out mother of Lucy (Charlene Tilton). It's only fair, of course, that van Ark took the job because she was willing to give up her whole career for Marshall 14 years before. "She was in London doing Barefoot in the Park," remembers John, who had been her high school steady, "and I was in the Air Force in Germany. I started commuting to London on weekends and said, 'Why don't we make this cheaper—come back to Germany with me.' " She did, but not without a warning from her agent that it meant bye-bye to her budding career. "At that time a wife stayed home and cleaned and cooked," says van Ark now. "But after a weekend in Paris I finally knew I had a catch."

Van Ark's father, a journalist, and her mother, a free-lance writer, moved from New York to Boulder, Colo. when Joan was 7. Her interest in the theater began after a boyfriend jilted her at a prom. That threw her into a fit of melodrama and Joan needed an outlet. At 17, she interviewed Julie Harris for a Denver newspaper, asking, "What does an actress do who doesn't want to go to college and study jelly beans and basket weaving?" Julie was sympathetic, and upon her advice van Ark applied to Yale's drama grad school. She was the second woman to attend Yale drama straight from high school—Harris was first—and the youngest student ever. (So it was affecting to Joan when Harris appeared in a January episode of Knots Landing, along with van Ark's and Marshall's daughter, Vanessa, 10.)

Yale, van Ark remembers, "was a test of concentration to walk across campus. I felt I stood out so much I used to count the cracks in the sidewalk, because if I looked up at all those guys I really hyperventilated." She later worked in regional theater in Minneapolis and Washington, then played opposite Richard Benjamin in Barefoot in the Park on Broadway. When the show went to Europe, she renewed her romance with Marshall. "We went together for three years and were separated, married and divorced before we actually got married," she cracks about their courtship.

Marshall—he changed his name from Marsilio because it was simpler to pronounce on the air—was born in L.A., the son of a Hollywood stunt man and a dressmaker. After his parents divorced, he moved to Boulder with his mother. John still remembers his first encounter with Joan at Boulder High. "Her long blond hair was swaying above her rear end, and I said, 'Hey, this one's different,' " he reports. "But we really met when the broadcasting and drama clubs merged to form a speech club." By the time he finished high school, John was working full-time for local radio station KBOL, then became a newscaster for Armed Forces television while in the Air Force. Returning to the U.S. in 1966, he tried the management side of ABC, but then switched back to journalism. Recently he turned down a lucrative offer from an opposing network because it would mean more time away from Joan and Vanessa.

They live in an unpretentious ranch-style house in North Hollywood. "The mortgage payments are cheaper than our utility bill," says Joan. Robert (Vega$) Urich and his wife, Heather Menzies, are neighbors. Marshall and van Ark are searching for a new home, she notes, because "We have only one bathroom and I hate it." ("Henry Winkler bought the house I wanted," she gripes. "I love that place and, so help me, before I kick the bucket I'll live in it.")

Van Ark has another complaint. "I sometimes resent that John's a stuffed-shirt newsman, so organized and together," she says. "All he has to do is run an Afro comb though his hair, while I have to get up at 4:30 in the morning to shampoo and dry mine." He, in turn, marvels at Joan's "silly" superstitious ways. She has held up shooting on Knots just because "I had forgotten to put my good luck pieces in my bra. It was a silver dollar and a rabbit's foot that Vanessa gave me—it helps me emotionally." She adds with a smile, "Plus, I'm very flat there too."

John's obviously the more easygoing member of the couple. "My workday rarely goes into the next day," explains Marshall. "The only thing I ever have to do at home is check the other networks' treatment of the news, pick up the newsmagazines and keep up on what's happening. If I can't get my act together by 5, forget it." That makes him the family cook by default.

Neither watches TV except in the line of duty, and they share a passion for running. They both qualified for and competed in the 1979 Boston Marathon. "We run at least 10 miles a day," says Joan. "I do it because I don't see a shrink. It's a lot cheaper." Adds her husband: "If I could run a three-hour marathon, it would mean more to me than anything I've ever done professionally." (His best time is 3:07, hers is 3:26.)

Joan's landmarks include a horror feature opposite Ray Milland, The Frogs, which made princes out of no one involved. "I didn't have to take my clothes off or say any four-letter words," she later explained, looking on the bright side. Knots Landing is her third TV series (after Temperatures Rising and We've Got Each Other). She won a Tony nomination in 1971 for her Broadway role in Molière's The School for Wives. Van Ark has also appeared in about 200 commercials and 50 series guest shots. She even does the voice-over for Spiderwoman on the ABC Saturday morning series.

As for a career move by Marshall to New York or Washington, where the journalistic challenges are greater, he says, "That will come later, perhaps when Vanessa's older." Four years ago, on their 10th anniversary, the couple renewed their vows in front of family and friends in Boulder. Their original wedding announcement had been sent out in the form of a theater ticket that read, "Taming of the Shrew, one performance only." Critiques Joan: "Fortunately, it's been a long run."

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