Three Acting Careers Soar, Borne Aloft by TV's Epic Winds of War

updated 02/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

War is hell, but to many of the actors involved The Winds of War must seem like heaven. The 18-hour, $40 million World War II melodrama, on which ABC gambled nearly all its precious sweeps month prime-time hours last week, was more than just the most ambitious, expensive and mega-hyped TV show ever. It was a dreadnought of a vehicle. As the series opened, some 80 million Americans took their places in living room easy chairs to watch it pass by. Such attention, ahead of 1980's Shogun and second only to 1977's Roots as a ratings blockbuster, is to actors so much money in the bank. For stars Robert Mitchum and Ali MacGraw (PEOPLE, Feb. 14), as well as Polly Bergen, John Houseman and Peter Graves, Winds represented a high spot in already established Hollywood careers. But for less-heralded co-stars Jan-Michael Vincent, Victoria Tennant and David Dukes, author Herman Wouk's adaptation of his 1971 best-seller most likely will prove a turning point. Vincent's performance as Mitchum's son (they had the same relationship in 1971's Going Home) revealed talents few critics had noticed previously. For Tennant, Winds unexpectedly filled the sails of a career that had been in irons for much of the last decade. For them, as for Dukes, a highly skilled actor whose work had not led to great fame, Winds provided the actor's greatest boon, a massive audience. Their stories:

Jan-Michael Vincent: a surfer at heart

When Winds director Dan Curtis put Jan-Michael Vincent through two tough screen tests for the role of college-dropout-turned-submariner Byron Henry (Ali MacGraw's husband), his nagging doubts were legitimate enough. "Normally," recalls Curtis, "you see Jan driving trucks or punching out four guys in a pool hall." As all America now knows, Vincent got the part. And Curtis gloats, "I thank God I didn't cast anyone else. His instincts as an actor are flawless."

Who would have guessed? With roles in forgettable flicks like 1975's White Line Fever (a red-neck trucker) and 1978's Big Wednesday (a surfer), Vincent's talents were well secreted. But the actor, who is 37 and still a surfer, refreshingly practices his craft with all the gravity of shooting a curl at Waikiki. As he puts it, "I get ideas from things going on around me. Catch things, react. Get the juice going while you're doing it." He also uses his hangloose lingo to describe the filming of Winds' Holocaust: "It was like Cowboys and Indians, doing that. My character was kinda like that, you know, 'Hey, that's pretty neat. Nazis! I'm havin' fun.' "

Vincent's easygoing ways took shape in the San Joaquin Valley town of Hanford. His parents owned a small billboard company, and after an all-night high school graduation romp, he remembers his dad greeting him when he walked in the door with the announcement that it was time for him to go to work. "I put my surfboard in the car and left," Vincent says. Similarly, when he was on line to sign up for a fourth semester at Ventura College, a clerk shut the window and left for lunch. Vincent left for Mexico, with just $200 to his name.

During the Vietnam War he spent a four-month Army stint repairing choppers (and six years in the National Guard), then gravitated toward acting and landed a part in 1970's TV movie Tribes, "I really made a commitment then," says Vincent. "Before, I thought that life never got past being 20 years old."

Vincent has lived around Malibu for 18 years (nearly half of that on a 10-acre ranch in Malibu Canyon). He is separated from Bonnie, his wife of 14 years, who lives in Sun Valley, Idaho with their daughter, Amber, 9. Vincent now shares a small one-bedroom house overlooking the Pacific with part-time model Joanne Robinson, 23. (Her English parents live down the road.)

Vincent eschews the in-town party crowd, and his pals tend to be such L.A. outlaws as ex-Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, from whom he recently bought a '55 T-Bird for Joanne, and actor-rocker Gary (The Buddy Holly Story) Busey, with whom he occasionally jams (on guitar) at an up-coast hangout.

Once a hard drinker, Vincent claims those days ended with a New Year's resolution. "When you drink, people look to you for leadership," he observes wryly. "Then they can get drunk too." Besides, with Winds, he's earned a more sober claim to respect. "I like having something I'm proud of—and that I can talk about."

Victoria Tennant: in love with America

The Winds of War marked Victoria Tennant's debut before a major prime-time American audience. Her best-known credit was for an obscure (though critically hailed) British movie, 1974's The Ragman's Daughter, when she was but 17. Since then, aside from a few even lesser-known flicks, her closest tie to showbiz was being Laurence Olivier's real-life goddaughter. Yet at 30, Tennant beat out some 200 contenders (reportedly including Rachel Ward) for the coveted role of Pamela Tudsbury, the headstrong would-be mistress of Robert Mitchum's Pug Henry.

Victoria remembers the arduous 14 months of filming with fondness. "Naturally there were tempestuous affairs, humongous fights, wild happenings and hilarious jokes," Victoria says coyly. Specifics? "That would invade the privacy of people I love."

Tennant's childhood immersed her early in the more sedate London theater scene. Her mother, Irina Baronova, was a famed Russian ballerina who danced for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and performed at Covent Garden in London; her father, Cecil, was a London aide for agent Myron Selznick, who managed, among others, Olivier. Victoria studied ballet but wasn't fated to fill her mother's toe shoes: "I wasn't very good, and I didn't enjoy the comparisons."

Indeed, she spent less time playing with dollies than watching dailies of films in progress with her dad, who also introduced her to the backstage theater world. At 15, she lost her father in a car crash. Soon her brother, Robert, a racing car driver, moved to Canada, sister Irina headed for New Zealand and Baronova for Switzerland. "My family sort of disintegrated," Victoria recalls. "It was devastating."

She studied drama at the Central Academy of Film, Art and Drama; soon her theater work kept her going. When Ragman's Daughter came up, she found in the crew a "new family, but when I got back home [after shooting the film in Nottingham] I felt so alone. It was a terrible moment."

Tennant was married for several years but refuses to discuss it. As for life since her divorce days, she says only: "I had to spend that time sorting out who I was, what I wanted."

For now, Tennant's answer is a lifestyle of free-spirited Beverly Hills bohemian ease. She rents a one-bedroom apartment and after a year there says, "I have come to love America." Her decorative tastes range from garage-sale to rustic; in music from reggae to Bartók, Chopin and the Beatles; and in reading from Raymond Chandler to French classics.

Since Winds, she and friends have filmed a pet (and as yet unpaid) project, Stranger's Kiss, a comedy-drama set in the 1950s. "It cost $125,000 and took 21 days to shoot," boasts Victoria, who stars in the movie. "If it makes money, then we all—even the sushi man, wardrobe and makeup man—will have a proper share of the film." More commercially, she will portray boxing champ Jack Dempsey's second wife, Estelle, in Dempsey, an upcoming three-hour CBS movie with Treat Williams. Tennant is eager to take on other substantial roles. "To work with people with conviction is rare," she says. "I'm not interested in trying to be glamorous all the time. I'd rather take risks and challenges. And push myself."

David Dukes: a triple-threat newlywed

David Dukes, 37, who plays Winds' American diplomat Leslie Slote, had really wanted the more dashing role of Byron Henry, which went to Vincent. After all, Byron gets the girl, Natalie Jastrow, as played by AN MacGraw. "I guess I was too uptown Eastern prig for the part," figures Dukes, adding a little bitterly: "If I had been a name, I'd have gotten it."

While the producers were mulling their decision, the name—and role—Dukes did choose to take was Frankenstein on Broadway, a monster catastrophe that closed after one performance. Thirteen days later Dukes was in Yugoslavia, mastering Slote's lines. "I went into a drunken stupor after Frankenstein got panned by 47 theater critics," he recalls. "Then I decided to do Winds."

A veteran of stage, TV and movies, Dukes still played hard to get, demanding—and getting—some $8,000 a week for the part, more than double the producers' original $100,000 offer. And offscreen, he nearly got the girl anyway. "I was very attracted to AM," he admits. "She's the brightest, most sensitive woman I've ever met." But Dukes repressed all temptation. "You cling to someone on location. One thing goes wrong and it ruins everything."

No sour grapes there. Dukes, whose previous girlfriend was 16-years-younger actress Jennifer (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) Jason Leigh, just married his second wife, poet Carol Muske, 37, author of 1981's Skylight. "Carol's intensity and passion are different from anyone I've ever been with. I like poets." He must. His first wife was one too, but their 10-year marriage perished in 1975 before she had published. She has remarried and settled in New Zealand; son Shawn, 16, lives with Dukes, and is in private school in California. Meanwhile David and Carol commute between her Manhattan apartment and his six-room home in L.A. "Even if this marriage lasts two months," he says, "it'll be the best relationship of my life."

Dukes grew up in San Francisco, the eldest of four sons of a police officer. His first high school role, prophetically, was as a struggling New York actor in Out of the Frying Pan. Dukes played the part in real life years later with a small rep company, after several years at a Marin County junior college and some Shakespearean productions out West. While trying to get started in acting in New York, he taught fencing at Juilliard for bucks.

Moving to L.A. in 1969, he did TV shows like Cannon, Police Story and CBS' ambitious 1975 Beacon Hill. His most memorable TV appearance, however, was as the rapist who attacked Edith Bunker in a famous 1977 episode of All in the Family. But Dukes always returned to New York stages. "Theater is reality—cockroaches in the dressing rooms, dust on the floor. No one edits you." His more than 104 theater credits include a Tony-nominated performance as Richard Gere's homosexual lover in the 1979 Broadway play Bent. "It was about prison and surviving and Nazi persecution—the sex was for shock value," he says.

Dukes is so busy these days he'll have to catch Winds on a home taping system. He's now playing Antonio Salieri, opposite John Pankow as Mozart, in Broadway's Amadeus, and he appears as Kate Nelligan's estranged husband in the just-released movie Without a Trace. Having made his name playing a gay prisoner and a rapist, Dukes protests, "I want to play a regular Midwestern guy. I want to be normal for once." His Winds performance affirms his professional self-image—"I'm getting better every year, and bankable." Now his long-range ambition, about which he is crystal clear, is "to be a movie star."

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