Out of the Typecasting Well at Last, Richard Crenna Hoists a Sophisticated New Image

updated 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

My career is like ragweed pollen," says Richard Crenna amiably. "It's almost always in the air, but sometimes it's a bit stronger than at others."

Right now Crenna's career is nothing to sneeze at. At 56, saddlesore after years cast as TV bumpkins on The Real McCoys and Our Miss Brooks, Crenna is so smoothly playing Patty Duke Astin's suave surgeon husband on ABC's sophisticomedy It Takes Two he might have been to the leading role born. Doesn't he feel bitter about all those years as somebody else's straight man? "An actor's job is to act," he explains. "You can do crap—and that's how you learn things."

Crenna has honed his craft doing TV acting (Slattery's People) and directing (Lou Grant) and playing second leads in such movies as The Sand Pebbles with Steve McQueen. But nobody really noticed until he surprised critics as the brutal husband in 1981 's Body Heat and last year as Sylvester Stallone's slightly psycho Green Beret commander in First Blood.

Given those successes, many fans were surprised when he took on another TV series. "I like to work," Crenna reasons. "Acting is a profession, not a hobby, and you never know when the next picture is coming along." But It Takes Two proved to be a snug fit. "It's a loving show," says Crenna. "I like the guy; I like the lady; we love and respect our kids. That, to me, is something unique in sitcom."

Ditto Hollywood. Married for 25 years to second wife Penni Smith, 53, Crenna dotes on their children: Seana, 30, an airline stewardess (Penni's daughter from an earlier marriage), Richard Anthony, 23, a UCLA history major, and Maria, 17, a high school senior just one inch shorter than her 6'1" father. The Crennas live comfortably in a rambling ranch house in Encino that the master of the house has considerably redesigned ("If I hadn't been an actor, I would have been an architect"). It's not just the backpacking excursions and skiing trips to Vail that keep the family close. Crenna is a concerned parent. When Seana narrowly escaped rape last year, Crenna became an impassioned supporter of the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center.

Richard first met Penni, an interior decorator, and her roommate Babs on the beach at Malibu. Penni tried at first to set him up with her friend. "But we hit it off and that was the end of ol' Babs," says Penni with a laugh. Four years later the duo married. Since then Penni and the children have traveled wherever Richard's work took him. "We decided very early," says Crenna, "that the children were going to live with us, we weren't going to live with them."

Crenna, an L.A.-born only child of a pharmacist father and hotel manager mother, always stuck close to home. He perfected his gift for mimicry by watching transients at his mother's hotels, graduated from USC in 1952, and has been a radio, TV and movie fixture ever since.

Crenna will appear next month with Jon Voight in Table for Five, but he's one of the few actors around who don't view movies as Mecca. "I see these guys in big hit series saying they're going off and have a career," he says. "I wish there was a school to teach them the realities once they're off the air—boom! It's over." Happily for Crenna, he's already graduated. If "boom" comes, he'd be content tinkering with the household tools he can't resist buying. "My fantasy now," he says with a wide grin, "is to open up a hardware store."

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