In That's Life! Jennifer Edwards Relives Her Battles with the Film Director Dad Who Once Rejected Her

updated 10/13/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1986 01:00AM

When Jennifer Edwards was 18, she had a bitter argument with her rich, famous, strong-willed father. She wanted his blessing to marry the family karate instructor. Father was more than disappointed; he didn't attend the wedding and later stopped talking to her at all. When Jennifer's daughter, Katie, was born, Dad stubbornly pretended she didn't exist. Sixteen months after that, when Katie (a victim of congenital heart disease) had to undergo dangerous open-heart surgery, Dad continued to maintain his wall of silence.

Jennifer and her father, writer-producer-director Blake (Victor/Victoria) Edwards, reconciled after two years. As she remembers it, she picked up the phone and said, "Dad, I'm leaving my husband. He said, 'C'mon home, you've got a room.' " But for Jennifer and Blake there were still conflicts left unresolved. Now, in That's Life! Edwards' largely autobiographical film, father and daughter engage in what amounts to family therapy onscreen, with Julie Andrews, Blake's second wife and Jennifer's stepmother, playing her real-life role as referee.

Jennifer, now 29, is portrayed as a mother-to-be in the movie because, Blake says, "I did not participate in her pregnancy and I wanted a second chance." Jack Lemmon plays the father role and Edwards is unsparing in depicting him as egotistical and selfish, more interested in his own problems than those of his wife and children. In one scene Jennifer ridicules her father's vanity and fear of aging since he won't let his daughter's first child call him grandpa. The scene, of course, is drawn from life.

Jennifer is grateful to That's Life! not just for a good role that's winning her solid reviews but as "a chance to work out feelings" about her father, who still offers no apology for his hard line as a parent. "Our estrangement broke my heart," says Blake, now 64, "but sometimes in order to make your point it's better not to relinquish whatever ground you've gained."

Today, Jennifer insists she harbors no resentment. Animosity seems out of character for this fragile, ethereal woman, who as a child, says Andrews, "was wise beyond her years." Jennifer was 11 when Blake and Jennifer's mother, costume designer Patricia Edwards, divorced. Jennifer never tried to reunite them. "I love my mother and father, but I love them apart," she says. Jennifer lived with her mother in England until she was 17, spending holidays with her father and Andrews (who wed in 1969) in their primary residence in Gstaad, Switzerland, a tax haven. There, Jennifer, her younger brother, Geoffrey, now 26, and stepsister Emma, now 23, Andrews' daughter by set designer Tony Walton, came in for some stern disciplinary tactics. When Geoff experimented with drugs, Blake stopped talking to him ("He's cleaned up now—a great young man," says Blake; Geoff is now a screenwriter). Andrews took care of lesser offenses, such as bad hygiene or messy rooms. "When the kids misbehaved," she says, "they had to pay a forfeit." Jennifer decided Julie should pay a forfeit, too, when she cursed. "People think Julie is all sugar, but she gets in a few swear words," confides Jennifer, and Andrews, 51, admits, "It's God's truth." After uttering one such oath Jennifer coerced her into writing a children's story that became the 1971 book Mandy.

One of Jennifer's storybook fantasies came to life at 10 when she was spotted by a TV casting director while visiting her father on a movie set and was soon signed to play the title role in Heidi. After that, acting became her single ambition. Her father gave her a small part in his 1972 thriller, The Carey Treatment, and later cast her in his S.O.B., The Man Who Loved Women and A Fine Mess. She bristles at charges of nepotism. "It's more difficult for kids of established parents because people expect you to be just as good as your parents even though they've had more experience," she says. Though Blake is writing a new film, Sunset, with a big part for her, Jennifer is courting independence by auditioning for a role on Family Ties. She'd love a series, but after a failed audition for Catherine Oxenberg's part on Dynasty, Jennifer figures she's not fated for the nighttime soaps. "What appeals on TV is lots of hair, lots of teeth and lots of boob. I'm always put in the category of Mia Farrow."

Jennifer reports greater progress offscreen. First husband Tom Bleecker, she now admits, "put me down a lot." Their breakup, she says frankly, was precipitated by an extramarital affair she had with an older, married man, a successful writer-actor she won't name. "He came along and made me feel valuable," she says, but he stayed married. In 1982, after a three-year courtship, she married a former RAF pilot, Peter Chittell, 39, a man to whom her father gave his approval. "He was my dad's secretary," says Jennifer. "He handled all the household stuff and anything to do with cars [the family owned four at the time]." After the marriage, Blake made Chittell the transportation coordinator on all his films. Jennifer and Peter now share a three-bedroom white stucco Malibu home, down the road from Dad and Julie's, with daughter Katie (now 10 and fully recovered after heart surgery), six chickens, five cats, four dogs, two parrots and a peacock. "She's a sucker for anything with a broken wing," says Andrews. Out of this crazy household that Blake Edwards will no doubt draw on one day to make a movie, Jennifer Edwards is making something more satisfying—a life.

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