11/16/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
MICHELE LEE IS WITH JAMES FARENTINO in the den of her four-bedroom, Mediterranean-style Los Angeles house. This used to be his den, too, until they separated in 1981, after 15 years of marriage. And they're watching a slice of that past life together: a video of a 1971 TV special about pregnancy titled The First Nine Months Are the Hardest. (Historical footnote: Sonny and Cher, also subsequently splitsville, costarred.)
"Oooh," squeals Lee, 49, "we look like kids!"
"We were kids," says the 54-year-old Farentino.
Two decades later, Lee still has a resilient pluckiness enhanced by 14 seasons as the strong-willed Karen Fairgate MacKenie on CBS's war-horse soap Knots Landing. Farentino, most recently seen playing Julie Andrews's husband on ABC last season in the short-lived sitcom Julie, is still handsome, if less darkly. And, when it comes to their relationship, they have matured wonderfully. "We never call each other 'ex'—it sounds so harsh and negative," says Lee, who in 1987 married TV producer Fred Rappoport, now 45. Farentino has since married, too, and divorced, and (having recently ended a four-year relationship with Tina Sinatra) is now "with myself."
"When a couple splits," Lee continues, glancing at Farentino, who takes hold of her hand, "you're not supposed to like each other anymore. But it's nice to know you don't have to lose someone."
It helps that the divorce was amicable. In the final days, says Lee, "I remember lying in bed, talking about how to preserve our friendship." Friendship has more than prevailed. They're costarring in a CBS movie, When No One Would Listen, airing Nov. 15. Lee is the executive producer, and she and CBS execs instantly agreed on casting Farentino, always a high-octane performer, as an abusive husband who terrorizes the whole family, including his wife, Lee.
"I'd never seen Jim like this he-fore," says Lee, who has worked with him at least a half dozen other times but never before as an...ex. "He could be volatile, but he was never abusive physically." She then looks at him. "It's not as if you didn't have a temper."
"I was a big Italian screamer," says Farentino, who grew up in Brooklyn, one of four children of Anthony, a clothing designer, and Helen, a housewife. "That's all.
The movie's love scenes were also a disconcerting experience. "Because we had been married," says Farentino, "I felt we were sharing something with people that was very private."
"Don't forget," Lee says, "this was the first time we had been together in that intimate manner since we'd split."
Their intimacy began in 1962 in New York City, where each was trying to make a go of stage acting. He was also near what was the end of his first marriage, to actress Elizabeth Ashley (currently on CBS's Evening Shade).
"He was hurt, and I was lonely," says Lee, who had grown up in Hollywood, one of two children of Jack Dusiek, a studio makeup man (she took her middle name, Lee, as her professional name), and housewife Julia. They wed in a civil ceremony in 1966 (she's Jewish, he's Catholic) and had one child, David, now 23 and studying acting at Santa Monica College.
During their years together, except for career demands, they were really together. "I never went off for two weeks to get away," says Farentino, "and she never did that. If we had a fight, we finished it here."
So, how come the marriage went kaput? Neither of them can point to a decisive blowup, a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee moment. "Basically we were attracted to each other because of those needs I mentioned," Lee explains, "and as they changed, the need to be married to each other changed." Part of the metamorphosis, they agree, was that some of Farenlino's Brooklyn toughness rubbed off on her. "Michele became a dynamo," says Farentino. "She began to stand up for herself."
Lee touches on the old rumors of Farentino's playing the field. "I never feared he would leave me for another woman," she says.
Farentino begins to explain that the "philandering" talk was part of a studio campaign to build his "macho" image, but Lee is really not interested. "I don't want to hear it!" she blurts.
They don't pretend that getting a divorce was as effervescent as, say, Lee's auto-comedic classic, The Love Bug. They made sure that their son got counseling. "I think I'm still getting rid of the feelings I had," admits David, who has a cameo in Listen. "But I think it was the best thing for both of them." He remains close to each of his parents—literally, in Lee's case, since she resides next door (and also owns his house).
Farentino lives alone in a three-bedroom house in West L.A. and gels together with Lee and Rappoport for occasional dinners and holidays. He even likes to phone Rappoport just to talk. "Fred is one of the most understanding guys I ever met," Farentino says. "He became an extended part of the family." Farentino reconsiders. "I became an extended part of their family."
The two men "hit it off right away," says Rappoport, who also claims to have established an instant rapport with Lee at 7:45 RM. FT, April 29, 1981—the precise moment, he recalls, when he arrived at her Manhattan hotel to take her to the musical Woman of the Year. (The date had been arranged by a mutual friend.) After an extremely leisurely bicoastal courtship, they married in 1987 (he has one previous marriage and no children). "We couldn't be happier," says Rappoport, who moved west. "Even the fights are great!"
Lee praises him for his "keen intellect" but complains that "sometimes he wants to be my caretaker: Stop it, Fred!"
At times. Farentino could have used a little caretaking. After the split he went through what he considers "a crisis period" with both drug and alcohol abuse. He is now recovering, he says, with the help of a support group. Romantically, the past decade had its bumps too. In 1985 he married Debrah Mullowney, a student in one of his acting classes (she went on to play Susan Smith on ABC's Hoopennan). The couple divorced in 1988. "It was a dear, fine relationship," he sighs, "but it was fast."
Lee: "Oh, how sweet!"
Farentino and Lee would love to work together again. "If we could find something with value," he says, "about an older couple, 40s, 50s..."
"What's this older couples s—?" retorts Lee.
"What do you mean," he asks, somewhat puzzled.
"You see," says Farentino, "I've been away a long time."
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles