Real Women Make a Tv Comeback Thanks to Susan Saint James and Jane Curtin in Kate & Allie

updated 05/07/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/07/1984 01:00AM

There couldn't be two juicier roles for women in prime time. As the stars of Kate & Allie, CBS' hot new Monday night series, Susan Saint James and Jane Curtin don't jiggle and rarely giggle but have managed to pull in great reviews and high ratings on wit and depth alone. Here's Kate, a former hippie turned career woman after a friendly divorce. Here's Allie, bright, sexy, funny and abandoned by the man she put through medical school. Best pals since their teens, what could they do but band together with their three kids (two are Allie's) in Kate's Greenwich Village apartment and forge a new kind of family? Kate is the breadwinner, working in a travel agency. Allie's the homemaker, but not in the Leave It to Beaver mode. Jane Curtin's housewife is a household executive with great organizational skills, and both Kate and Allie can be tough, angry, tender, impatient, horny, unbearable, argumentative, tipsy—things that television mothers could rarely be before. In contrast to the "dumb broad" window dressing for TV's new buddy-buddy heroes, the mid-30ish Kate and Allie are surviving heroines in a world where the nuclear family has undergone nuclear fission.

"This is not a statement saying, 'Girls, leave the guys and go live with your best friend,' " says Saint James, 37. "Kate and Allie didn't plan this. It's just the best solution they could think of, and their friendship sustains them."

Saint James and Curtin took their Kate & Allie roles because of their own happy home situations. Wed in 1975 to producer Patrick Lynch, Jane gave birth 15 months ago to her first child, daughter Tess. Susan, married to SNL producer Dick Ebersol, also had a baby 15 months ago, son Charlie. Friends ("but not best friends," insists the reserved Jane) since they met on the set of How to Beat the High Cost of Living in 1980, Saint James and Curtin cooked up their mutual ideal-job description during a postpartum mother-baby visit last winter (they live a half hour away from each other in Connecticut). "I needed a steady job, with hours I could manage," says Curtin, the now-ready-for-prime-time former star of Saturday Night Live. Adds Saint James, a series veteran since The Name of the Game in 1968, "I wanted to be near my husband and to give my children the structure I had as a kid." (Saint James has two other children, daughter Sunshine, 12, and son Harmony, 9, by a previous marriage to makeup artist Tom Lucas.)

"Traditional audience research said that even female viewers would not accept strong, independent women," says Harvey Shephard, senior vice-president for programming at CBS. "I hope we're overcoming that notion." In its premier episode in March, Kate & Allie ranked fourth among the top 10 programs. Its continued high ratings (the final episode of the original six airs this week) make it a virtual shoo-in for renewal next season. CBS has scheduled Kate & Allie in a Monday night lineup that includes Kate Jackson's Scarecrow and Mrs. King and Cagney and Lacey, the police drama starring Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless, which was brought back March 19 after a public outcry over its cancellation last season. The schedule, which may run against Monday Night Football in the fall, has shown particular appeal to women 18 to 49, as well as to men.

Despite the network's enthusiasm for "new" women on TV—and despite their own wish to do a series—Curtin and Saint James did not like the idea of Kate & Allie when it was first presented to them. "I could relate to the problems of a divorced woman," says Saint James, "but I didn't want to play a show with glib kid actors." Adds Curtin: "All of the sitcoms I had loved took place outside the home. For Kate & Allie, they wanted me to have two big kids. I didn't see myself as that maternal." Susan was reassured that the children in the show would not be TV's typical pint-size Catskill comedians. Jane remained unconvinced. "My friends thought I was crazy to resist," she says. But Susan's arguments were persuasive. "Every step of the way, before every meeting, every reading, every rehearsal, I was on the phone to Jane begging her to show up just one more time. Finally, we taped before a live audience, and they fell apart laughing during the first scene. When we went backstage, Jane said to me, 'Susan, I've never had so much fun in my whole life, and don't you dare ever tell anybody I said that.' "

The on-camera chemistry between the cautious Allie and the outgoing Kate is a reflection of the yin and yang of Jane and Susan's own friendship. Jane is somewhat shy and intensely private. "My life has been very dull, and I feel very uncomfortable about publicity," she says. "It changes your life." Although she grew chummy with Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live, Jane felt like the odd person out. "Here I was, this nice Catholic girl, and suddenly I'm this rock 'n' roll cult figure," she explains. "After the show I'd just go home to bed, while everybody else kept partying."

Born in Cambridge, Mass., the last of four children of an insurance executive and the first female probation officer in Boston, Jane attended Catholic boarding school. She made a proper Boston debut before dropping out of Northeastern University in 1968 and "falling into acting." Moving to New York, she landed Saturday Night Live at an open audition. By the time she was cast, she was already married to Lynch, now 38, who had been her blind date at a hockey game.

Jane and Patrick live "with absolutely no furniture" in a 50-year-old house on 28 acres. "Life is wonderful, except that the house is too big. I'd like to fill it with more dogs, some horses outside, and maybe one more kid. I love motherhood and I love Tessie."

Like Jane, Susan comes from an upper-middle-class family. Her father, now retired, was chairman of Testor Corporation, the model-plane company. Raised in Rockford, Ill., she also attended Catholic boarding school and made her debut. In 1963, she quit Connecticut College after five days to commute between Paris and New York as a fashion model. Having since been through two divorces, a druggie phase and a vegetarian phase, she is relishing the life of a New England matron. She and Ebersol share a Colonial home with their three children, two grandparents and four pets. (Says Jane admiringly, "I'd be in a puddle on the floor if I had to do what she does.")

Susan likes being busy but, she says, "the trouble with me is that I always worry how everybody's feeling. My parents, my kids, my husband, my children, the help...but I have now given up on Jane. She's 36 years old—whoops, I'm not supposed to know how old she is—anyway, she's old enough now to take care of herself."

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