Fencing Master

UPDATED 04/17/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/17/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

DON'T GET HIM WRONG; TOM SKERRITT isn't complaining. There are advantages to living in the same house with your adult son. For starters, Andy, 33, and his wife, Jane, are around to sign for packages. They're good for a quick trip to the movies. ("We ride our bikes," says Andy.) And they help with the rent. Still, there are drawbacks. Take, for instance, the evenings when the elder Skerritt wants to, say, bring home a lady friend. "It's like creeping into the house with Mom and Dad there," says the 62-year-old actor. "It's like, 'We can't fool around with them upstairs.' "

The very thought of such a missed opportunity is enough to make a Skerritt fan tremble. (Relax. "It's an old house," he says with a smile. "The walls are thick.") Never mind that he won a surprise Best Actor Emmy Award in 1993 for his turn as sheriff Jimmy Brock on CBS's quirky drama Picket Fences. Forget the acclaimed four-decade movie career during which Skerritt has played everything from doctor (with a star performance in 1970's M*A*S*H) to Navy officer (in Top Gun in 1986) to minister (in A River Runs Through It in 1992). To his admirers, Skerritt is one thing above all else: a hunk. "Women say to me, 'I can't believe they pay you to spend time with Tom Skerritt,' " said his Fences wife, Kathy Baker. "Women from 18 to 80 go nuts over him. We tease him about it."

Not as much as he teases himself. "All this stuff about being a sex symbol is just air," he says. "Hot air." The twice-divorced actor, who plans to continue his weekly commute to the L.A. house he shares with his son for the two years remaining on his five-year Fences contract, may be used to such attention now. But it was not always so. The youngest of three sons, Skerritt was raised in Detroit by his mother, Helen, a homemaker, and his father, Roy, a businessman. After graduating from MacKenzie High School in 1953, he spent four years in the Air Force, then enrolled in Detroit's Wayne State University. He began dabbling in theater because, he says, "I was shy and self-conscious and I thought acting would be a good way to overcome it."

Then one day a stranger came backstage after a school play and told him, "You're good, young man, you're very good." It was George C. Scott's mother. "I was bowled over," Skerritt says. He decided to take acting more seriously and headed to UCLA film school. It was clearly the right choice. Skerritt has rarely been out of work, appearing in a steady stream of film and TV gigs.

Nonetheless, when Fences came around three years ago, he was reluctant to take on a weekly series. "The first time I walked into the makeup trailer, when we were giving him his Jimmy Brock haircut," recalls Fences creator David Kelley, "he just kept saying, 'Five years...five years.' We had to drag him down from Seattle."

Skerritt says his reluctance was personal, not professional. "This is a business that often takes you away from home, and that's just not compatible with the need to nurture a relationship," he says. His first marriage, to Charlotte—mother of Andy, a screenwriter, Erin, 31, a Colorado homemaker, and Matt, 26, an aspiring filmmaker in Seattle—ended in divorce long ago. His second marriage, to Washington State bed-and-breakfast owner Sue Aran, with whom he has a son, Collin, 17, ended in 1992 after 15 years. "The absences," he says, "create a lot of resentment."

Happily, his relationships with his children haven't suffered. "He's my best friend," says Matt. Andy concurs. "We do eat dinner together regularly," he says. "Dad likes to cook—chicken, stuff like that. Nothing fancy. He just loves to be in the kitchen, fussing around."

A handy quality in a father—and in a bachelor. Skerritt starts most mornings before dawn swimming laps in his pool, spends weekends fixing up his Seattle home, bakes an awesome scone—and is looking for a woman of intelligence, humor and maturity. "I have met some very bright younger women," says Skerritt, "but there's just so much disparity in terms of experience. Confidence comes with age."

Still, Skerritt doesn't deny a weakness for what he calls "the cosmetics." Jokes Andy: "I rib him about going out with women younger than me." But for Skerritt's ideal woman, marriage is not in the plan. "Why would I marry again?" he says. "It's all about property and having children." So far, none of the dates friends have set him up with in the past couple of years have produced sparks. "They turned out to be intelligent, good ladies," he says, "but I just wasn't ready." Fortunately, times change. "Maybe it's just spring in the air," says Skerritt. "I'd like to fall in love again." The line forms to the left.

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
ROBERT MASELLO in Los Angeles

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