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Janet Steps Out

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It’s nice to be the linchpin of America’s most popular TV show, Three’s Company, but does it hurt Joyce DeWitt that not she but co-star Suzanne Somers has supplanted FF-M as the new National Pinup? “I have this albatross,” figures DeWitt. “Brunette hair.” Then, too, Joyce is genuinely more comfortable playing the wallflower in the media orgy resulting from the series. Implausible as it seems, there’s never been any jealousy between DeWitt and her sexier, more extroverted roommates on the show: Somers and John Ritter (he pretends to be gay so the fussy landlord will allow him to live in). It would be unthinkable for DeWitt to do all those talk and variety shows, Celebrity Solitaire and whatever else Ritter does, much less submit to a Dean Martin Roast (which Suzanne positively reveled in a couple of weeks ago).

Somers can’t blame her overexposure the past year on the wardrobe department alone, and she still doesn’t understand or accept DeWitt’s passion for anonymity. “The better part of the time when I wasn’t doing PR myself, I was trying to convince Joyce to do it,” reports Suzanne. “You do only get one turn, and what a turn this is!” But Somers thinks she may finally have a convert. “Now Joyce is doing what I did last year, and it’s my turn to go to bed with a box of bonbons and read a book.” That will be the day—when Somers rests on her bonbons and the PR-shy DeWitt goes totally public.

To be sure, Joyce has, belatedly at 29, retained a flack-manager, who came from the outfit handling Suzanne and Farrah. That step came after a two-month experiment with another manager, Ron Samuels, who previously packaged Lindsay (The Bionic Woman) Wagner and Lynda (Wonder Woman) Carter. So far DeWitt has taped a pilot for a Muppet Show spinoff, is actually posing for a poster (G-rated) and is scouting for a movie. “I’ll open up slowly and selectively,” she vows. “I don’t have to be the main event, I’m just looking for a good part.”

The other departure is that she’s entrusted her self-trained contralto to a voice coach and tremulously launched a singing career on The Mike Douglas Show. (Her pardonably self-conscious first selection: If My Friends Could See Me Now.) One friend, Ritter (who is Tex’s son), loudly praised her “rich, throaty, woman sounds” and is high on her potential. She has cut a demo record with former neighbor Leon Ware, who has produced Marvin Gaye and Melissa Manchester, and is looking for an album deal. Ware, Manchester and Joyce’s 35-year-old actor boyfriend Ray Buktenica, Brenda’s fiancé” on the just-canceled Rhoda series, all joined in for background vocals on her demo. “I’d always been impressed by the camaraderie in the music business as opposed to acting,” says Joyce. “All these big names do background vocals for their friends, and here it was happening to me!”

But none of this will turn DeWitt’s head. She will always be a curious mix of caution—she bought her ’76 Peugeot only after poring through consumer magazines—and rebellious counter-cultural independence. “Joyce is a very sensitive, very private person,” says co-star Audra (Mrs. Roper) Lindley. “Living by the ocean on Old Malibu Road in an almost bohemian way is very important to Joyce. She never cares about being chichi or seen in the right places,” reports Audra. “Suzanne comes to the set dressed to the nines in the latest thing from the Right Bank or Giorgio’s. Joyce buys clothes from junk shops or the Army-Navy store and comes to work in a baseball shirt and jogging shoes.”

Indeed, the message from the rented Buktenica-DeWitt pad is that people matter more than things. Though Joyce and Ray took possession two months ago, unpacked cartons abound, furniture sits where the movers plopped it and the dominant object in the living room is a king-size bed. Joyce did have shades made up for the windows but cheerfully confesses to being a domestic basket case. “I’m so bad in the kitchen it’s sick. I do things like make a casserole without boiling the macaroni first—and have to send out for pizza anyway. My mother keeps a spotless little castle, and I’m a natural slob.”

Joyce grew up in Speedway, Ind., the Indianapolis 500 town, “a square peg in a family of round holes. My older brother Doug was a beautiful baby who never had any broken toys or made any mistakes on his homework,” remembers Joyce, the second of four kids. “I was born with black hair all over my body and red skin. I was ugly, loud, reckless and crazy—and Doug was a hard act to follow.” Her father, who worked his way from shoveling coal to a white-collar position with General Motors, insisted on future security. “He thought his daughters should have teaching certificates so that when our husbands left us we could support our three children in a respectable profession,” Joyce smiles. She got her certificate at Indiana’s Ball State University, then brushed aside parental objections to head for UCLA for her master’s in drama (on a Clifton Webb Scholarship).

There she met Buktenica in a campus production of Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night. “There was immediate interest but no action,” remembers Ray, and they temporized for four years before moving in together. While secretarial work paid the rent, Joyce went months before landing her first guest spot, on Baretta. ABC then signed her to a holding contract, but turned her down for the Pinky Tuscadero role on Happy Days. More months went by. Then the network offered her a choice of two upcoming sitcoms. Having to choose within 24 hours, she wisely settled on Three’s Company (the other show never happened).

Joyce originally wanted Suzanne’s role, but the ensemble has melded marvelously. “She doesn’t know how good she is,” glows Somers. “I learned a lot from her, even basics like upstage, downstage, that I didn’t know. She has this terrific comedy technique and uses physical humor when the writing isn’t as good as it could be. When she puts herself down, it’s Joyce’s way of making you feel comfortable and showing that she doesn’t feel she’s hot stuff,” Suzanne sums up. “I’m very grateful her ego doesn’t get in the way of helping other actors.” Ritter praises her as “really considerate and constantly offering to help out with anything”—including driving him to the shop for his broken BMW three days in a row and then waiting five hours for it finally to be fixed.

Joyce’s role as Three’s Company’s sure-and-sane Janet (“She’s the pivotal thing around which Chrissy and Jack dance”) stands to be beefed up next spring. ABC is also planning to spin off Lindley and Norman Fell, who play the threesome’s landlords, into The Ropers this spring.

However much her role enlarges, there should be little difference to DeWitt’s stay-at-home life. She and Ray never party except “where it’s rude not to go, like the Emmys.” They deliberately dine early in local restaurants at 5 p.m. (“We’re done when everyone else starts to arrive”) and plan to spend even more nights in front of the tube once they’ve installed a six-foot Advent screen. One public appearance Joyce made unstintingly was to co-host the national cerebral palsy telethon with Ritter last February. (Somers also rallied around John for the cause—his brother, Tom Ritter, suffers from the affliction.)

All expenses are carefully split down the middle chez Buktenica-DeWitt. The two turn out for a daily jog (he goes five miles, she chugs 2½) and flew to Paris on their one vacation together. Politically concerned, Joyce backs Gov. Jerry Brown—warily—but “liked Tom Hayden even before he was Jane Fonda’s hookup. People still hate Jane Fonda, but she was right.” She and Ray meditate and are vegetarians, he says, “except for cheeseburgers.”

Though they were genuinely moved at the ’77 weddings of Somers (to talk show host Alan Hamel) and Ritter (to actress Nancy Morgan), marriage and kids aren’t on the agenda. “I don’t think I have the time for children now, and I don’t find it necessary to have them,” says Joyce. “If I had confidence that I’d be a good parent and raise a child as a totally different person and not as a little me, then I might.” Of course, that was never in her original Indiana career plan. “Long before women’s lib was invented,” DeWitt felt, “men had gotten a much better deal. I never thought I’d get married, cook or take care of babies. I thought I’d be doing the things that interested me—like going to rehearsal.”