Buck Rogers Wouldn't Dare Tell Erin Gray What She's Heard for 14 Years from Ken Schwartz: Go Fly a Kite

updated 07/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Actress Erin Gray and her husband, Ken Schwartz, are a perfect match—sort of like Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard. When she signed a Universal contract two years ago, it was not only a career breakthrough but the beginning of yet another domestic crisis. They were living in New York State, where his fortune had been rising in real estate. But after Erin was cast for the movie Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, she had to keep shuttling to L.A. on those miserable overnight "red eye" flights. "Ken came to me one night and said, 'I can't live with you if you're unhappy,' " Gray recalls. "He said, 'It scares me, but you've got to do what you've got to do.' " So in 1978 they established separate residences. Erin kept son Kevin, then 2, in California, and they took turns commuting.

After 18 months they found that didn't work either, especially when Buck Rogers became a weekly NBC series. It was expensive and exasperating. "We were seeing each other every two weeks," says Ken. "I could have messed up my marriage and my son's opinion of me if we kept it up." That led to Plan C. The family is now unicoastal again in a four-bedroom house in Studio City. Schwartz has given up his six-figure real estate business to manage Gray. It was one more step in redefining their relationship; they've spent the better, or worse, part of the last 14 years (he's 31, she's 29) doing just that.

It started almost the day they met at Redwood High in Corte Madera, Calif. Erin, the only child of a salesman father and a photographer's-assistant mother, was born in Honolulu. Her parents divorced, and at 8 she moved into her grandparents' trailer in Palm Springs. Three years later she joined her mother, by then remarried, in San Francisco. "My mother and I always had full adult communication," recalls Erin. "There was nothing I didn't know about sex by the age of 13." She was a sophomore and already a knockout professional model when a friend introduced her to Ken, then a junior. "It was instant hate," laughs Erin. "I thought, 'What an arrogant punk.' I'm sure he thought, 'This stuck-up bitch.' " On their first date, Ken was so nervous at being out with the school beauty that he ran two red lights and (to the best of their recollection) went up three one-way streets the wrong way. While romance ensued, Erin notes, "We became known as the couple who always fought."

By graduation, Erin was earning up to $1,000 a month as a model and driving her own white Mustang. She and Ken were still steadies, much to the distress of her mother, who once called his parents to suggest they send Ken to military school "or do something with him." That was no surprise to the Schwartzes—Ken had run away at ages 10, 12, 14 and 16. The youngest of four children of a San Francisco design engineer and a housewife, Ken recalls part-time construction jobs more fondly than his classes. In 1967, after attending Marin Junior College, he joined the Army (and was assigned to Vietnam, where he became a POW interrogator and intelligence analyst with the 25th Infantry Division). "Ken and I saw our lives going in different directions," says Erin. "When we said goodbye at the San Francisco airport, I was numb."

Ken didn't write for six months, while Erin, after majoring in math briefly at UCLA and modeling in L.A., headed for the high-fashion big time in New York. "I spent my 18th birthday drinking wine in an Italian restaurant with four gays," she says. "It was wonderful." After a motorcycle accident that shelved her for three months, Erin resumed their correspondence, but certain topics were off limits. "I knew he might be seeing prostitutes in Vietnam," explains Erin. "He knew I was dating. We didn't go into details because it was nobody's business."

Then in 1969, while on an assignment in the Caribbean, Erin got a call from California: Ken was home. She immediately flew back, and while she was in his sister's kitchen helping with the dishes, he said, "You want to get married?" "I said, 'Yes,' " recounts Erin. "He said he was just kidding. I said, 'I'm not,' but I told him there were a few conditions. I said I wanted to continue my career. He said, 'No problem.' " They married two weeks later and spent the next year and a half in Fort Bragg, N.C. and Germany while Ken finished his hitch. "I'd be a housewife for three weeks," says Erin, "then go all over Europe for modeling assignments. Ken found it tough to have such a successful wife."

Back home in 1971, Ken enrolled at the New York Institute of Technology, majoring in business and finishing in two and a half years as the class valedictorian. "I was a madman," he concedes. "If Erin and I were ever going to break up, that was it." Says Erin: "I cried at his graduation. He got straight A's and worked so hard. He never used any money I made as a model. We spent weekends renovating farmhouses."

By 1975 Erin was one of the nation's top TV models, earning $100,000 a year. Her best-known was the 1976 cologne spot in which she purred, "All my men wear English Leather or they wear nothing at all." "I did that when I was two months pregnant, and I was hot," she confides. "I went from being a spindly model to being a wench. If you don't have a child, you're not a real woman. I know the ERA people will kill me for saying that," Erin gushes on. "But it showed in the commercial. Sexual energy is the most powerful thing in television." She claims that "having a baby changed Ken, too. His hair got longer. The muscles on his legs got bigger. Not everybody notices that, of course."

Ken was also building his career. By 1977 he was vice-president of a real estate investment firm—and was in the same tax bracket as his wife. Erin, meanwhile, had tried a little therapy, studied with Warren Robertson's Theatre Workshop in New York (Susan Blakely and Maud Adams were classmates) and picked up small parts in TV shows like The Rockford Files. Then in 1978 she starred opposite Glenn Ford in the miniseries Evening in Byzantium. The reviews were not glowing—"Her acting style combines the optical excesses of Karen Black and Barney Google," snorted one critic. But that led to the role of Col. Wilma Deering, Buck Rogers' superliberated CO. Erin agreed to do the follow-up TV series only if her persona were changed. "Wilma was too wooden, too hard and straight," she said. "The movie did not show her femininity." (Next season Wilma and Buck may even have a relationship.)

While Gray and Schwartz dream about producing movies, they've just completed a brief vacation on their upstate New York farm and feel they've finally found the ideal modus vivendi. Ken says, "I'm very difficult to live with, and Erin's the most secure person I know. We couldn't have worked together a couple of years ago; now we can." Erin, too, sees a more peaceful and relaxed future. "The seed of our relationship," she observes, "is understanding. It's like the Bugs Bunny line: 'Don't take life so seriously—you're not getting out alive.' "

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