His Wife's 'Slice' Prospered While Ron Leibman's 'Kaz' Sank, but Then Neil Simon Put Him in 'Pictures'

UPDATED 05/12/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/12/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

Look for the gum under the dressing table," Linda Lavin told husband Ron Leibman. But all traces had disappeared when Ron moved into the same Broadway dressing room that Linda occupied in 1970 before she became CBS' Alice. At the time she was starring in Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Now it's Ron's turn to do Simon's latest, I Ought to Be in Pictures.

The new comedy was salvaged by rewriting—and Leibman—after it had floundered in L.A. with Tony Curtis starring. Tony stalked out one day in mid-performance. But even before that, Simon had put in an SOS to Leibman, who impressed critics opposite Sally Field in Norma Rae and on the CBS series Kaz. Ron bowed out of a workshop production of Othello—co-starring Al Pacino, no less—to take the role.

When I Ought to Be in Pictures finally opened on Broadway last month, the reviews were medium cool. Leibman, however, was praised for his tough-tender performance as a father abruptly confronted with the daughter he had abandoned 16 years before. "I would have gone for Ron right from the beginning," says Simon. "But I feared he might be too young." Curtis is 54 and Leibman 42.

By Leibman's own assessment, he's in his prime (four days older than Lavin). He has purposely moved away from the hyperactive loonies he portrayed in the films Where's Poppa? and Slaughterhouse Five and onstage in We Bombed in New Haven. "I said, 'What about the softer, gentler, kinder side of myself?' " To better explore that, he wrote the pilot for Kaz in 1977. "I like characters who change and grow," he explains. The show, a sophisticated drama about an ex-con who turns lawyer to defend the downtrodden, was dropped after one season. But by then Leibman had already decided, "No more series for a while. You have to work 19 hours a day." Instead, he has been writing for TV. "It is lonelier," he notes, "more private. When you're an actor you're doing someone else's fantasy. Writing is making your own fantasies real." Currently Leibman has been working on Dusty, a pilot for NBC about a taxi driver who yearns to be a detective.

Leibman's not complaining about his career, to be sure. His childhood, he says flat out, was "rotten." At 6 he was hospitalized for several months with polio. "It was during an epidemic," he recalls. "I saw them wheel dead kids out." When Ron was 7, his father, a Manhattan dress manufacturer, and his mother were divorced—a traumatic experience for their only child. Five years later he contracted spinal meningitis but recovered. As a teenager he was robust enough to work summers pushing racks in the garment district.

Leibman made up his mind to be an actor while performing in Richard III at Ohio Wesleyan. He quit school in his junior year and headed for Greenwich Village, where he mixed repertory and off-Broadway work with driving cabs and selling women's shoes. During the short-lived Broadway run of John Guare's Cop-Out in 1969, he romanced his leading lady, Lavin. "I loved his big, brown, soulful eyes," says Linda.

They married that year and rented a floor of a Manhattan brownstone once owned by Aldous Huxley. They still have the apartment and are building a house in Malibu. "Home is where Linda is," says Ron. Lavin returns the compliment. "He's domestic," she says. "He'll bring home chicken without being asked." With marriage and 10 years of psychoanalysis, Ron thinks he is getting housebroken. "I used to be a bit of a rebel. I had success but I wasn't happy. Now," he says, "success to me means having a beautiful day with Linda."

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