With An Oscar in Tow, Writer Steve Tesich Finds His Career Is Finally Breaking Away

updated 05/12/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/12/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As a child in Titovo Uzice, Yugoslavia, Steve Tesich amused his elders by telling them tall tales. His father, a professional soldier, had disappeared during World War II, but Steve insisted that his dad had really gone to America, where he would someday resettle the whole family. "These old people would pay me a few coins," Tesich recalls, "and say, 'When you go to America, bring me back a present.' " There was nothing extraordinary about a fatherless boy spinning such fantasies, except that when Steve was 13, his mother suddenly received a letter from her wayward husband for the first time in more than a decade—and the next year the family was reunited in East Chicago, Ind.

Dreams still have a way of coming true for Tesich. After he struggled 12 years as a playwright and scenarist, his fifth screenplay, Breaking Away, became his first to be produced—and the Hollywood sleeper of 1979. It not only won Tesich, 37, an Oscar; it also commanded an astounding $4.5 million from NBC to air it this week, and will be blown into an ABC series next fall starring Shaun Cassidy. A captivating chronicle of growing up, bicycle racing and town-gown conflicts in Bloomington, Ind., it was based on Tesich's own experiences. His father, who had become a steelworker in the U.S., died of cancer two years after bringing the clan to Indiana, forcing his widow to toil as a cleaning woman to support her two kids. Yet Steve was not a townie; unlike the movie's hero, he won a wrestling scholarship to Indiana U and wound up anchoring the winning Phi Kappa Psi cycle team in the 1962 Little 500 race. "Bicycle racing is romantic," says Steve, explaining his fascination with the sport. "You feel like the last of the caballeros, with a bunch of guys going down the road." He doesn't deny, though, that "the sport attracted weird guys. In fact, there really was a character I knew who went around singing snatches of Neapolitan arias, and he was definitely the inspiration for the film." David Blase was his name, and he now teaches high school biology in Indianapolis.

As one of the hottest writers in movies, Tesich hasn't kept up with the old alma mater—though Breaking Away helped increase alumni donations by 30 percent. Steve is now adapting John Irving's novel The World According to Garp, writing another screenplay for Arthur Penn, and going every day to the New York set of his second movie, a thriller called The Janitor Doesn't Dance, with Breaking Away director Peter Yates. A new stage work, Division Street, is opening in L.A. later this month, and Tesich is shuttling back and forth from New York to attend rehearsals. Grouses his wife, Becky: "We haven't had much time together."

When they first met in 1968, Steve admits, he didn't much care about being together. He wanted time alone to write. After Indiana, he had gone to Columbia graduate school and was supporting himself as a social worker in Brooklyn. Becky occupied the next desk. "She would do some of my work and cover my phones so I could go home and write," recalls Steve. "She was really helpful. One day she came home to visit me and read my work and she liked it; so she decided to leave her husband and marry me. It was a very mercenary arrangement on my part," he concedes. "She liked my work and was willing to support me. Her feeling was that this guy was going to make it, and then she would be able to stop working." Becky confirms that "it wasn't love at first sight. I thought he was the strangest-looking person I had ever seen. But he was funny and fun to be around."

Over the next few years the couple lived on Becky's earnings while Steve tapped out play after play. In 1970 they moved to Colorado ("to be closer to nature without being in California," Steve explains), and that year Tesich's first produced play, The Carpenters, made off-Broadway. His screenplays now fetch "two or three times" what he earned for Breaking Away, and he has long since retired Becky. "I'm getting paid much more than I need and a lot less than I deserve," he jokes. Nevertheless, they have no plans to leave their one-room wooden cabin on five acres in Conifer, Colo., where they have lived since 1974.

"It's nice when your car breaks down to be able to have it fixed and not worry about the cost," says Becky, 37, of Steve's new wealth. Her one great extravagance so far was the blue chiffon designer dress with hand-painted flowers she bought for the Oscar ceremony. "We saw it in Bonwit's window as we were going to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel," Becky recounts. "A limo was taking us, so we were feeling very wealthy. I bought it with all the money we brought to Los Angeles. When I came back from the store, Steve said I looked like I had just bumped someone off and really enjoyed it." The Tesiches have also applied for their first credit cards and plucked one other fruit of success. "His hair always looks funny because he makes me cut it," says Becky. "But for the Oscars, I put my foot down. I made him go to a barber." To Steve, though, victory in the Academy Awards was not the end of the road, but a pit stop. "That Oscar can't type one letter," he complains. "It just sits there on the television set watching me."

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