Since the World of Matlock Isn't Her Oyster, Linda Purl Is Shucking the Show

updated 05/18/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/18/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Linda Purl just doesn't belong here. In this state of mindlessness called Hollywood, a town that seems dominated by swing-from-the-chandeliers dunderheads of both sexes, Purl is the anomaly—a prim, impossibly tiny actress with earnest Kewpie-doll features and a small, almost childlike voice. In a town where most people hawk themselves with a fervor that would embarrass P.T. Barnum, Purl is restrained—the proper product of private schools in Connecticut (where she was born) and Japan (where her father, a Union Carbide executive, was stationed for 22 years). "Let's face it," says Purl's manager, Ron Glazer, "Linda is overly polite."

Yet Purl, 31, has been a steadily employed member of the industry since she was 17. Encouraged by her parents to start acting lessons as a child, Linda landed the role of Secret Storm vixen Doreen Post at 17. Since then she's knocked off two Happy Days stints (as Richie's girlfriend Gloria in 1974 and as Fonzie's flame Ashley Pfister in 1982), 14 TV guest shots, 10 series and pilots and 20 TV movies. Her current TV projects are NBC's top-rated Tuesday night series Matlock, where she plays Andy Griffith's lawyer daughter, and a movie thriller, ABC's Armed Response, which airs next week (May 22). Tack on eight feature films, 18 meaty stage roles, five albums and an occasional nightclub act, and Purl's résumé begins to resemble a bus schedule.

As demure as she appears, there must be some reason why directors cast Purl before the usual Hollywood swine. Maybe there's a hidden, passionate side to her, some fire inside the ice. The torchy ballads she sings in her club act offer one clue that there is. Her love life offers another. Purl has kept her name in the tabs on a fairly regular basis, starting with her 1980 marriage to Desi Arnaz Jr., which ended a year later. "You'd think by now I'd have one phrase that would be adequate for this," she says, shifting on the couch in her Coldwater Canyon home while she tries to explain why the marriage failed. "We loved each other very much. We were still sort of giddy with being in love with each other, and we just found that we couldn't work out the more practical side of living. If there was a mistake made, that was it—that we didn't find that out before-hand."

After the marriage Purl had a fling with Brian (Murphy's Romance) Kerwin and has just ended a 10-month romance with Perry (Riptide) King, a friend of 10 years. "We went out on a double date, of all silly things, with my sister and her beau," says Purl. "It was funny because this was my pal Perry, and suddenly my sister was sort of urging us on with Cupid's arrows in her quiver."

After knowing each other for years, she and King began to believe that "maybe there was something more." But there wasn't. The failed romance, adds Purl, "was so frustrating because it's not as if he paints his toenails green and I can't stand it. We just found out that our friendship is the strongest part of our relationship, and that's how it should remain. It was mutual and sad. It's always difficult, I think, when two people go into a relationship with the best of intentions and discover that it's really not the best road to take in life. However, I think both of us, having gone through divorce, are grateful we realized this before going through divorce again."

Divorce is imminent in her professional life, however. Taking a rare step for a performer—and betraying another trace of her emotional side—Purl is leaving Matlock despite its successful first season. Starring Griffith as a folksy but shrewd Atlanta attorney—sort of a Perry Mason for Mayberry fans—the show spends most of its time on Ben Matlock's caseload and leaves little for his daughter. "I'd hoped the father-daughter relationship would be developed and explored," says Purl, "but it just didn't turn out that way." Part of the problem was that there wasn't much basis for an age-gap contrast between father and daughter. "Linda is a young woman," says Matlock executive producer Dean Hargrove, "but she seems so mature."

So we're back to her stuffy, Stepford-wife image. Purl—who's now making a CBS comedy pilot tentatively titled Day to Day—knows that her image can be a drawback, but she feels she can't do much to change it. Asked how she thinks her acquaintances might describe her, she hestitates. "I'd like them to think of me as someone who is... well, nice," Purl says at last. Then she grimaces. "But that sounds so banal, doesn't it?"

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