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Superdad Wagner

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For 19 months now—ever since Natalie Wood drowned at the age of 43—Robert Wagner has been raising his three girls, trying to help them remember their mother but forget the pain of losing her. Says his dear friend—and constant companion—Jill St. John: “I can’t think of anyone who is more of a Superdad.”

But R.J.—as Natalie used to call him—says Natalie deserves most of the credit. “I was made a single father by a tremendous tragedy,” he says, his strong voice suddenly quavering. “But one thing I was very fortunate about was that Natalie was a great mother. It’s just a matter of sustaining the goodness and love she put there. Thank God they had her as long as they did.” Wagner credits the three daughters with getting him through the immediate grief of Natalie’s death. “I didn’t have much strength in the beginning,” he recalls, “but the strength I got from them was incredible. I felt they cared so much for me, and I honestly think that they comforted me more than I comforted them.”

R.J. still finds it hard to talk about Natalie. “Sometimes,” he says, “it is a struggle to make it through the day.” After she died, accidentally drowning near their 60-foot yacht Splendour on Nov. 29,1981, R.J. spent a week in miserable solitude until his housekeeper, Willie Mae Worthen, forced him to get out of bed and take care of the children—and himself.

Therapy, travel, a new home with a menagerie of pets, and even such simple things as cooking dinner together…R.J., 53, has tried everything to make life normal for his brood: Courtney, 9, his and Natalie’s only child together; 12-year-old Natasha, Natalie’s daughter with film producer Richard Gregson (“a close and dear friend”), and Kate, 19, R.J.’s child with former wife Marion Marshall.

Soon after the tragedy, R.J. started the children in therapy. He wanted them to let go of their anger, pain and confusion, to realize that it wasn’t the end of their lives. “The important thing was to get help,” he says. “They’ll never get over the emotional loss—but they may accept it on terms they can handle.” R.J. also returned to therapy, which he’d started years ago at Natalie’s urging. Travel helped, too. R.J. took the girls to Gstaad, Switzerland, for Christmas when they could not face the holidays without Natalie in the home they had shared, an attractive Beverly Hills manor.

R.J. and Natalie had lived in that house for the seven years of their second marriage. They first wed in 1957, the baron and baroness of bobby-soxers who were joined in what Hollywood gossips trumpeted as one of the most “glittering unions of the century.” Three years later, while making Splendor in the Grass, Natalie fell in love with Warren Beatty and the marriage ended. She married Gregson in 1969, six years after R.J. married Marshall.

Both their careers continued to grow. Natalie—already an Oscar nominee for Rebel Without a Cause—went on to make West Side Story and Love With the Proper Stranger. R.J. reluctantly turned to TV, but made it big in It Takes a Thief (“Dummy me, I didn’t want to do it”). In 1972 Natalie and R.J. fell in love again and remarried. “We were different people,” Natalie said then. “But we were still attracted to each other—that hadn’t changed.”

In the weeks following Natalie’s death, the memories in their Beverly Hills home became too much to bear for R.J. and the kids—and so did the gawkers. Busloads of curiosity seekers passed by at all hours, necessitating an elaborate security system. It became less of a home than an upscale jail. Six months ago Wagner put the house on the market for $2.9 million and moved into a new home in West Los Angeles.

The new Casa Wagner is perfect. Once R.J. builds a fifth bedroom for Courtney (“We’ll do it together”), there will be plenty of room for all the kids and Willie Mae. It has two acres, a pool, a paddle tennis court, room for the family’s four dogs, two cats, one goat and its kids (a gift from Shaun Cassidy and his wife, Ann) and a dozen chickens (gifts from R.J.’s Hart to Hart co-star Stefanie Powers), plus stables for their three Arabian horses. “Natasha got me back into horses,” R.J. says. Last fall Wagner bought her a gelding named Fad-a-lei, and he plunked down around $50,000 apiece for two mares of his own: Fadjur’s Margie and Fadjur’s Heidi, both offspring of Black Stallion stand-in Fadjur.

The horses, in fact, led the Wagners to their new home. A few months ago R.J., Jill, Courtney and Natasha missed a plane for one of their frequent trips upstate to an Arabian horse ranch in Stockton, where R.J. is breeding his mares (and where Kim Novak and Stefanie Powers bought their horses). They decided to take a drive instead, and passed by a beautiful house with a “For Sale” sign out front. At the children’s urging, R.J. rang the bell. He soon was signing on the dotted line.

R.J. tries to spend as much time as he can at home with the kids. “I don’t think every parent can do everything,” he says. “It’s impossible—particularly for people who work.” And R.J. does work his Hart out: 12 to 14 hours a day, often leaving home at 6 a.m. “I’m frequently gone before the kids go to school,” he says. “But sometimes, if my call is later, I’ll take them. If I’m on location or at the studio, they’ll come by and see me after school.”

Each of the girls does chores around the house—mostly caring for their menagerie—and R.J. often cooks. “They think I’m one of the greatest cooks in the world,” he says. “That’s our idea of a really good time.” His own tastes are evident in his trailer on the Hart set: four shelves stocked with vitamins and minerals and baskets of Granola bars and fruit for snacks. “Their favorite foods vary,” the chef says, “but I try to keep them into chicken, fish, veal and off the junk stuff.” Like any parent, R.J. gets pleas for assistance with their studies. “It gets a bit embarrassing,” he admits. “I can’t do the homework!”

R.J. has help with the kids, especially from Willie Mae—”this wonderful woman” who has been the family’s housekeeper for a decade. She takes the youngest two to school when he can’t, and is on hand to tend to stuffy noses. Declares Dad: “There’s always somebody with them.”

Of course, R.J.’s career isn’t the only demand on the family’s time together. “The kids,” he says, “have their own lives and friends.” Kate, who dropped out of the University of California at Santa Barbara because she was lonely for her L.A. pals, recently traveled through Europe after working in public relations at the Cannes Film Festival. The younger girls have piano and ballet lessons. “When I’m home and I’ve got free time, it’s their weekend,” R.J. explains. “But they’re very good about that and they know I love to be with them. It works.”

Wagner has always gone out of his way to spend time with the children. He and Natalie hardly ever worked together (they co-starred only in the 1960 movie All the Fine Young Cannibals, plus The Affair and Cat on a Hot Tin floor for TV) just for that reason; one of them was always home. Now that R.J. is a single parent, he tries to take the kids with him when he makes a movie—both to have more time together and to escape the paparazzi in Los Angeles.

Last season, despite the concern of teachers at the girls’ school, R.J. took them to England (with a tutor) while he taped two episodes of Hart. Then St. John met them in Paris and they all went on to Gstaad and Venice. This summer, when R.J. goes on location to film To Catch a King, an HBO film set for release this fall, he’ll take the family to Portugal. “Every time I have a chance to show them something new and experience that through their eyes, I try to do it,” he says. “To be able to give them that is a great advantage.” Money is never a problem; R.J. owns about half of Hart to Hart and earns an estimated $2 million or more a year.

Along for the ride on most of R.J.’s trips is Jill. The sultry star (a former ballet classmate of Natalie’s and a friend of R.J.’s since they were contract players at Fox in the ’50s) came out of semiretirement and moved back to L.A. from Aspen in August 1981. When Natalie died four months later, Jill sent flowers to R.J.; they got together and haven’t been apart much since. Jill, 42, lives a few miles down the road in Beverly Hills, but often spends time in R.J.’s home. Despite rumors of a wedding in the works, there are no plans. “He hasn’t asked me,” Jill confides.

At times life is still troubled for the loved ones Natalie left behind. But they are getting along. “I’m sure I made a lot of mistakes, as we all do,” R.J. says. “But children are very forgiving. My hope is that I’ll always be there for them when they need me.”