Robert Windeler
September 12, 1977 12:00 PM

Every other member of her family is with Testor Corp., the famed model-airplane outfit. Her dad is chairman of the board; her brothers are, respectively, the president and the design chief; her sister is head flack. And anyone who met Susan Saint James unforewarned would assume she’s in the business, too—undoubtedly as Vice-President in Charge of Sniffing.

No, stop, not fair. Sure, the nutcake TV star (The Name of the Game, McMillan & Wife) christened her daughter Sunshine and her son Harmony, and is a violent vegetarian who won’t even wear leather and whose latest zealotry is airlifting migrant polar bears over a Canadian Arctic town where they used to get slaughtered annually. Yet, at 31, Susan is in many respects one of the sanest and most honest ladies in Hollywood.

Besides, it’s hard to knock somebody who has had both a prosperous upbringing and a career (McMillan earned her $75,000 an episode at the end), and yet won’t play tennis because it’s “too social.” Also, Susan needs sympathy these days, now that she’s riding out what this year’s bible of behavior, Passages, calls the “Catch 30” phase. Saint James has, in effect, fired her husband, Tom Lucas, as manager but kept him as spouse—with slightly reordered status. And professionally, she’s trying to spring from being TV’s Mary Tyler Less (“the updated Doris Day, the smart new girl with white teeth,” in her own words) to movie star. She’s already made a zingy start opposite Peter Fonda in Outlaw Blues. The movie is a preposterous, made-for-drive-ins country-music epic that one finds hatefully entertaining. Peter is a Fonda, sure, but it must be hell trying to share a 35-millimeter frame with Saint James in a halter and sawed-off jeans.

In the picture Susan plays a sort of take-charge Rita Coolidge to Fonda’s Kristofferson. In life the Saint James-Lucas duo is the poor folks’ Barbra Streisand and Jon Peters. Tom, 42, isn’t an ex-hairdresser—he’s still a star makeup man with clients like Farrah Fawcett-Majors. But Susan thinks he blew it as her manager. “His streetwise manner offended a lot of people,” she says and then winces, “For seven years I never answered the phone or made a decision.”

Heretofore the four Lucases, large and small, all slept in the same nine-foot-square bed. Now, to redress the balance of their relationship, Susan is summering with her parents back home in Rockford, Ill. “But we’ve never even discussed divorce—we just seem to fit together better when we’re not together all the time,” explains Saint James. The kids—”Sun” and “Harm,” as they’re called—are naturally with Mom. One of Susan’s other major causes is La Leche League, and the boy, 2½, still occasionally gets breast-fed. Tom’s therefore alone (except for their two dogs, cat and cockatoo) at their Hollywood Hills home. To the extent that Saint James is taking any professional counsel now, it’s from agent Jack Gilardi, who also represents Jeff Bridges and Telly Savalas.

All of this was foreordained at age 7, Susan says, when she saw a Rhonda Fleming film and knew immediately that “I’d be a movie star, be friends with people in Hollywood and have a legitimate reason to see Rock Hudson every day for five years.” At 10, she haunted her hometown movie theater (or vice versa). She claims to have seen The King and! 31 times and to have memorized the script. This summer, cheered by family and admiring locals, she attended Outlaw Blues at the selfsame theater. “FARRAH FAWCETT,” read the doggerel on one placard, “START FEELING BLUE, ROCKFORD’S GOT AN OUTLAW NAMED SUE.”

Susan was anything but an outlaw, thanks to her parents, whom she credits with giving her the “solid base as a child” that has enabled her “to be somewhat freaky as an adult.” Sent to the tony Convent of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, Ill., Susan recalls being “the most holy and always in church. I’m sure the ‘Saint’ in my name comes from my Virgin Mary complex.” Sure? Nonsense—it was she who gave herself the name, having been born plain Susan Jane Miller.

Always precocious, she skipped fourth grade (her mother was the teacher), graduated at 16, got accepted at Connecticut College for Women but stayed just long enough to tell the dean she was disenrolling. With her parents’ approval, she headed instead for Manhattan and a modeling career. “But I was overenthusiastic,” she admits, “and they kept telling me to develop ‘chic reserve.’ “Evidently she managed it, and she shuttled back and forth between New York and Paris, where she modeled during the collections. She also worked as curtain puller at Paris’ Olympia theater to see her idol, Charles Aznavour.

At 20, Susan turned up in Hollywood and, with no experience, talked Universal into a beginning $250-a-week contract. It was there—after a failed first marriage to a scriptwriter—that she met Lucas, an ex-studio laborer and grip who made it into the all-male makeup men’s union. (Women still only do hair on Hollywood sets.) Saint James admits to “dropping a lot of acid and mescaline” while Tom was “doing heavy drugs at a time when not too many people were even smoking marijuana.” But that was mostly over before they met, and by the time Susan was pregnant with Sunshine, their only habit was health food.

Her one subsequent trip was TV stardom as she picked up an unprecedented seven Emmy nominations in seven years. Susan now embarrassingly concedes that during her final year of McMillan, “I behaved like the Queen of Siam, demanding things like a 31-foot trailer and studio drive-on passes for people like my stand-in’s daughter. I made them give me a Mercedes 450 SL I didn’t even want, because I thought that’s how you were supposed to do it.” She also confesses to bursts of outright rudeness. “Rock Hudson, like the true gentleman that he is, would be standing there on sets with me not showing up,” she recalls ruefully, it was a temporary aberration she can barely believe today, and against the family grain. Her own folks, for all their opulent, servant-smoothed life-style, were Adlai Stevenson Democrats, and Susan has worked for the George McGovern and Tom Hayden wing of the party.

With instructions to her agent to turn down all TV offers and concentrate on films, Susan is confident her career is about to soar. She’s into pragmatism these days. For example, scruples aside, she skis in boots made of leather. She also gets company stock promoting Red Zinger and other Celestial Seasonings teas. She’s wide open for film offers. “I’m wailing now,” she exults. “Don’t hold me back.” Besides, she adds, “If I waited for every movie to fit my philosophy, I’d never make any money.”

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