Live Wire Teri Austin Turns a Knots Plot into a Real-Life Romance

UPDATED 05/04/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/04/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT

In wanton defiance of a chilly, drizzly morning, Teri Austin comes to the door of her Hollywood Hills bungalow in a strapless velvet gown and pearls. She looks better prepared for a night of passion than a day with the press. "Oh, you've come early," she says, mock-cooing. "I've just been doing some gardening." Austin, the Knots Landing brunette whose looks inspire the kind of double takes that can cause whiplash, seductively beckons her visitor inside and proceeds to slink across the living room, hips swaying, in an exaggerated Rita Hayworth impersonation. Then she collapses in giggles. "I'm assuming you have a good sense of humor," she says. "I mean, doesn't everyone live like this in Hollywood?"

Clearly this is not a woman who takes herself, or her semi-star status, too seriously. As Knots's sultry Jill Bennett, Austin, 29, has had little opportunity to show her comic side. Luring Gary Ewing (Ted Shackelford) away from his second wife, the villainous Abby (Donna Mills), is serious business. But when the cameras stop rolling, Teri starts clowning—skipping around the set humming the wicked witch's theme song from The Wizard of Oz and doing excellent Marx Brothers imitations. "I think she missed her calling," says head makeup artist Bill Reynolds (Debbie's brother). "She should have been a stand-up comic." Co-star Shackelford agrees: "Teri has a madcap humor, which is important when you're doing this sort of work."

Shackelford has more opportunity than most to see that humor in action. In a classic case of life imitating art (or at least TV), Teri and Ted have been dating since last fall. Shackelford, 40, split from Jan Leverenz, his wife of 11 years, last August; but friends insist that Austin, who was hired in April 1985, is not a home-wrecker. "Ted and Jan were having problems long before Teri came into the picture," says one Knots cast member. When questioned, Austin and Shackelford minimize their relationship. "We see each other, but not exclusively," says Teri. Shackelford concurs, hooting at tabloid reports that he has already purchased a lavish love nest for his co-star: "On my salary?"

Still, even a minor offscreen dalliance gives those steamy love scenes a nice verisimilitude that viewers appreciate. Brought into the Knots plot near the end of last season to provide a youthful foil for the show's quartet of 40ish female stars, Austin receives more than 1,000 letters from fans each month, as well as high praise from her co-workers. "She has a light, wonderful touch," says Joan Van Ark (the first Mrs. Gary Ewing).

Success is not new to Austin. The daughter of a retired manager for General Electric in Toronto and a housewife, Teri knew early that she wanted to be an actress, and she went for it unequivocally. At 13, determined to gain admission to a drama class for much older students, she performed her first star-quality impression. "I called the teacher and said, 'I'm Teri Austin's mother, and she'd very much like to be in your class. It would be a big asset to her future career.' " It worked.

After continuing her acting studies at Toronto's York University, where she worked part-time at a seedy bar (and can still mix a bad martini to prove it), Teri hit the streets in 1981 looking for acting jobs. "In Canada you have to pay your dues as an actress," she says. "No one wants someone who says things like, 'I won a beauty contest and I really, like, want to be somebody like Vivien Leigh, or Vanna White.' " Keeping that in mind, Austin landed several non-bimbo bit parts in Canadian films. In late '81 she was hired as a co-host on The Thrill of a Lifetime, a popular Toronto talk show.

By 1984 Austin had decided that The Thrill of a Lifetime was anything but. In search of greater challenges, she chucked the job, sold off the two houses she'd purchased with her co-host earnings and headed for L.A. She won the Knots role after four months of pavement pounding and prime-time guest shots. "It had been hard going from being fairly known in Canada back to complete obscurity," she says. "I was lonely."

These days loneliness is not a problem. But Austin, who has never been married, suspects she might be difficult to live with full-time. An occasional insomniac, she is subject to ill-fated bouts of midnight tinkering. Once she shocked herself trying to rewire a light socket. Another time she flooded her bedroom, and terrified her dog, while fixing a radiator. Such escapades could provide rich material for Teri's ultimate goal, stand-up comedy. "Lucille Ball might have played Lucy," she says, "but I live it."

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