Lady of the House

updated 01/14/2002 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/2002 01:00AM

Playing the First Lady on NBC's The West Wing, Stockard Channing can make all the President's men—and women—tremble as she imperiously acts the part of Josiah Bartlet's brittle, strong-willed wife, Abigail. It's a role that befits Channing's status as a Broadway institution and 30-year veteran of TV and films. But her arrival on The West Wing's Los Angeles set two years ago was anything but regal. Channing showed up in the same hiking outfit she was wearing in British Columbia earlier that day when the producers asked if she could fly down and do an appearance as Abigail. "I went right into wardrobe and into this evening dress, then to the set, and there's Martin Sheen [President Bartlet]," she recalled in '00. "I said, 'Hi, we've never actually met, but I think we've been married for 55 years.' "

"She is a very special dame," says Sheen. "I mean it in the Frank Sinatra best sense. She has no pretense. She is easy to talk to." She and Sheen kiddingly call each other by their birth names. "So now I'm Ramon and she's Susan. We get a kick out of that." These days, Channing, 57, may be tempted to kick up her heels with satisfaction. Not only is she riding high on The West Wing, for which she has received two Emmy nominations, she is also hearing Oscar buzz for what The New York Times calls her "complicated, finely layered performance" as a hard-charging corporate executive in the psychological thriller The Business of Strangers. And after four failed marriages, she seems to have found anchored bliss with her companion of 14 years, cinematographer Daniel Gillham, 48. "They're not Hollywood types," says her friend, TV writer and producer Emily B. Levine. "He loves her for who she is and the life they built together."

Things have not always been so idyllic. After getting her big break in the 1973 TV movie The Girl Most Likely to..., Channing found her career fizzling. By 1978 she had suffered a string of film flops and, at 34, was virtually unemployable. Then, in the first of several comebacks, she was improbably cast as Betty Rizzo, the gum-chewing leader of the Pink Ladies in the 1978 hit film version of Grease. The movie went on to gross $380 million worldwide, and even today, Channing reports, children weaned on the home video version point to her and say, "Rizzo!" But two failed sitcoms followed, and Channing returned to her roots in theater, playing a society matron in the Broadway play Six Degrees of Separation. When she reprised that role on film in 1993, Channing nabbed her first—and only—Best Actress Oscar nomination—and was back in Hollywood's good graces. She then kept busy with TV movies and supporting roles in films until The West Wing beckoned. "I just fly along, and every now and then I get this 'rediscovered' thing thrown at me," Channing told the Toronto Sun in 1996. "But I'm delighted that everybody thinks I'm going in the right direction."

Even if it's not the path her mother, Mary Alice, had in mind for Susan Williams Antonia Stockard. "Her mother wanted her to marry a rich, socially acceptable husband, and Susan became a gypsy," says David Debin, Channing's third spouse. Channing's upbringing was anything but bohemian. Her father, Lester Stockard, was a self-made shipping magnate who died in 1959, when Channing was 15 and her sister Lesly Smith (now the mayor of Palm Beach, Fla.) was 21.

For a while it seemed that Channing, who grew up in New York City and attended exclusive girls' schools in Manhattan and McLean, Va., before enrolling in Radcliffe College in 1961, would follow her mother's wishes for upper-class domesticity. In 1963 the 19-year-old coed married Walter Channing Jr., a Harvard Business School student from a prominent Boston family. "They were a golden couple," recalls friend Sharon King, "like Scott and Zelda [Fitzgerald] without all the neuroticisms." The pair split in 1967 (two years after Channing graduated summa cum laude) because Walter, a stockbroker, "wanted me to be a business wife," Channing told PEOPLE in 1979.

By then she had taken her stage name and joined the Theatre Company of Boston—to her mother's dismay. (The two later patched things up. "We are a close family," says Mary Alice, 91, who lives in Palm Beach, "just not a demonstrative family.") In 1970 Channing got married again, this time to Paul Schmidt, a poet, actor and playwright she had met at Harvard. "We were more family than lovers," she said later, and the couple divorced in 1976. "Susan remained good friends with Paul," says Debin, and 23 years later, after Schmidt died of AIDS at 65, Channing spoke at his memorial service. When she married Debin in 1976, he was an L.A.-based TV writer-producer and she was an ex-ingenue whose first major film, 1975's The Fortune with Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, fizzled at the box office. Then came Grease. On the heels of the film's success, CBS offered her a sitcom in 1979, Stockard Channing in Just Friends, and Channing picked Debin to be her producer. The show was hardly I Love Lucy (it got yanked after half a season), but the couple were already as volatile offscreen as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

They split in 1980, and that year, after a second sitcom, The Stockard Channing Show, also tanked, Channing "decided that stardom and fame were no longer important," says Levine. "She just wanted to be an actress, and she went back to the stage." Not even her fourth marriage, to Charleston, S.C., public relations exec David Rawle in 1982, could keep her away from Broadway. Though they divorced in 1988, "we are still very good friends," says Rawle, 61.

Channing, who has no children, finally has been able to strike a balance in her life with Gillham, the cinematographer on her 1988 film A Time of Destiny. "He's literate, he's sexy, he's smart," says their friend, actress Kathryn Walker. Best of all, says Levine, "she is completely herself in that relationship, instead of living up to someone else's expectations. The great thing about Dan is that he doesn't want her to be anything for him. He has his thing and she has her thing." What they do share is a love of dogs, reading and hiking (this fall, while hiking, Channing broke an ankle—a development written into The West Wing's story line). The pair also enjoy entertaining at their homes in Los Angeles, Manhattan and Maine, where Channing—"a superb cook," says actor pal Paul Benedict—has a gourmet kitchen. But she is just as comfortable in the White House—or The West Wing's version of it. "I did feel like the new kid in school," she says of joining the show several months after it launched, "but it just clicked." Now it's her castmates who sometimes get intimidated. "When I told my 8-year-old niece—who is a Grease fanatic—that I'm working with Rizzo, she's like, 'No way!' " says NiCole Robinson, 31, who plays chief of staff Leo McGarry's assistant Margaret. "Stockard is like Elvis. Your parents love her, and your children love her."

Michael A. Lipton
Pamela Warrick, Lorenzo Benet and Carrie Bell in Los Angeles, Rachel Felder, Sona Charaipotra and Natasha Stoynoff in New York City, Michael Cohen and Linda Marx in Palm Beach and Laura Lewis in Charleston

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