'It Was Like a Healing'

UPDATED 12/02/1991 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/02/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

IT IS UNCOMMONLY QUIET IN THE SECLUDED home tucked into the Hollywood Hills. Down the road from neighbors Frank Zappa and Arsenio Hall, the cozy, two-story dwelling with its tranquil goldfish pond is shaded by trees and suggests the hushed and privileged privacy of stars.

The leafy grounds have the air of a refuge, which, for 32 years, is what they have been—in more ways than one—for actor Dick Sargent, 61. Although he became famous as "the second Darrin" during a three-year run as Elizabeth Montgomery's husband on Bewitched in the '60s, he worked hard to keep his private life just that. Last Oct. 11, though, Sargent went public in a big way: He announced that he is gay. "It was such a relief," he says. "I lived in fear of being found out. Now it's given me a whole new mission in life."

What nudged Sargent out of the closet was California Gov. Pete Wilson's unexpected veto of a gay-rights bill that would have protected gays from job discrimination. Outraged, Sargent attended three protest rallies and declared his homosexuality at a Hollywood gathering on National Coming Out Day. "It seemed like the perfect time," he says. "It was like a healing."

Afraid of what the truth would do to his career, Sargent had led a double existence for most of his adult life. As a young actor, he made sure to always bring attractive starlets to parties and premieres, and he even added a bogus failed marriage to his official studio bio. Once, for image's sake, he acquiesced in an age-old Hollywood publicity ploy and posed with a seductive actress—in his case Connie Francis—for a magazine layout that branded the two a hot item. "We looked passionately at each other," he recalls, "but that was the only time I ever saw her."

Most painful was the need to disguise his longtime lover, Frank, as a "business associate." Frank, a television screenwriter who died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 52 in 1979 (and whose full identity Sargent still protects from Frank's family), lived with Sargent for 20 years. As the actor walks among mementos and photographs in the home they once shared, he is clearly still pained by the loss. "He was a marvelous man," he says, turning toward the finely laid brick patio behind the house. "Frank and I placed all of those bricks ourselves."

One of the few people who did know about Sargent's relationship with Frank was his Bewitched costar Montgomery, who became a close friend during the actor's three years (1969-72) as her TV foil. "His homosexuality was never an issue," says Montgomery, 58. "That's just the way it was. He's a dear friend—and a great kisser."

Born Richard Cox and raised with his elder sister, Edie, in Carmel, Calif., he was a shy, clumsy kid who, even now, retains some of his youthful gawkiness. His mother, Ruth, was a former silent-film actress; his always distant father, Col. Elmer Cox, was a World War I hero who worked variously as a boxing promoter, horse trainer and impresario at a Sunset Strip gambling house. "I kept reaching out for him, but he always kept me at arm's length," says Sargent. "I wanted him to love me, and I'm quite sure he didn't." After the colonel died of a massive stroke when Sargent was 11 ("His funeral was like a B movie...all these shady guys wearing dark glasses, their hats pulled down and collars up, with big busty blonds at their sides"), young Richard was sent to military school. Sargent was so unhappy—and gaunt—that he went on a crash diet to engineer his own expulsion for health reasons.

After he had left prep school and gone to Stanford University, Sargent says, he was hit with the realization that "I looked at men more than women." After "a couple of good college tries at suicide," he endured years of anxiety about his sexual identity. He quit school to act, playing nondescript roles in films like Love Me Tender (1956), Operation Petticoat (1959) and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966). His big break came in 1969, when he was cast to replace Bewitched'?, first Darrin, actor Dick York, who left because of back troubles and an addiction to painkillers.

When Bewitched went poof, so did Sargent's career as a star. Since then, he's done mostly cameos on TV shows such as Murder, She Wrote and L.A. Law. The success of Bewitched left him financially comfortable, though he stresses, "I'm not rolling in money. The last residual check I got was for $13.75."

Sargent's last major part was in 1989 as a father in the film Teen Witch. Since coming out, he says, "I'll probably never be allowed to play a father symbol again. I'm afraid for my career. I'm gonna probably lose a whole lot of work.... I may even have to sell the house someday, but this is more important. I like myself, probably more than I have most of my life. It's over with, thank God."

J.D. PODOLSKY
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles

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