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Facing Up to a Twin's Death Is a 10-Year Trial

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Dirk and Dack Rambo’s show business career seemed to begin at the intersection of Hollywood and Divine. They were 14-year-old farm boys on a visit to L.A. when Loretta Young spotted them in church one Sunday in 1962. For a season the pair appeared on The New Loretta Young Show as identical blue-eyed twins. It was, of course, a role they had perfected in real life. Off camera, “We were inseparable, like one person living in our own world with its own intuitive understandings,” recalls Dack. “There was nothing we didn’t know about one another.” But on a Sunday in February 1972 Dirk, then 24, was killed in a car crash. Although Dack soon resumed his TV career, he says a 10-year period of guilt, aimlessness and self-destructiveness shadowed his life. Through most of that time he resisted talking even to his parents about the accident, believing he could cope with it by ignoring it Last year, as he prepared to begin his role as Steve Jacobi on daytime TV’s AH My Children, he entered into intensive therapy and finally came to grips with the loss of his sibling. Now able to deal openly with the tragedy, he spoke to PEOPLE’S Susan Champlin about life with—and without—the twin with whom he shared a bond deeper than brotherhood.

It’s a strange phenomenon being a twin. You’re under the same influences day after day, year after year, so you think like one person. You really are one human being.

We grew up on a farm in Earlimart, Calif., and we had a very normal childhood: chores to do, cows to milk, work to do in the fields after school and during the summer. We had a sister who was two years younger and a brother who was nine years older, but we had our own world. My mother, father, brother and sister were almost intruders. Even if you’re married to somebody, you still don’t know that person as fully as twins know each other. We understood each other so completely it was difficult for us to sit and have a conversation. I knew his thoughts, and he knew mine, and we never needed to speak. When we did, it was always on a superficial level—things between us were understood.

While we were in high school we went to L.A. to visit our aunt. We’d been down there about three weeks, and Loretta Young saw us at Mass. She came up to us and said she’d been reading a story that she was thinking of making into a series, and it called for twins. We went home and told our folks about it, and of course nobody believed us. She finally wrote and told us, “Yes, I’m going to do the show, and I definitely want to have you in it if you’re interested.” We couldn’t get down there fast enough.

We did the show for about a year and remained under contract to Loretta for another three years. Up to this point, we’d always been looked at as “the twins” or “the boys,” never as individuals. My real name is Norman and his was Orman, which was bad enough. And when I chose the name “Dack” for the show, our agent said my brother would have to be “Dirk” to match. Now we wanted to find our own identities, so there started to be a little bit of competitiveness between us. It was very difficult because we lived together in an apartment in L.A., and we had this great love for one another. But whenever one of us would get something, the other would want to top him.

It turned out that without knowing it, we were both up for a soap opera role on ABC’s Never Too Young. They kept narrowing the field until there were three people in the running, two of them being us, and still neither of us knew about the other’s interest. I got the job, and when I got home and told my brother, he started to cry. I said, “What’s wrong?” And he said, “I was up for the same show.”

It was at that point that I began to see a regression in Dirk. He was always an extravert, but he started pulling in, and I started coming out of myself. He got his own place because by then we really wanted and needed the separation. I did the soap opera for about a year, and right after that I got a series with Walter Brennan, The Guns of Will Sonnett. My brother, meanwhile, was under contract to Universal.

Then, on that Sunday five years later, it happened. I had been away for the weekend, and I had come home early and called him. He said, “Why don’t you come by now because I’m going to a movie later with a friend.” I went to his house about 6:30 in the evening and had a drink. At 7:15 or 7:30, he and his friend had to go, so they got into Dirk’s car and I got into mine, and we drove down the hill together. His car, a Volkswagen, was in front of me, and he turned right while I kept going straight. Hours later when I got home, I learned that just after he turned off, a woman who was drunk, driving a big sedan, crossed the white line and hit him head on. The gas tank in the front of the car exploded. He was trapped behind the wheel and burned to death. It’s amazing how I was spared. I could have been driving behind him and witnessed it all, which I think would have done me in.

After the funeral I stayed with my parents for four months, trying to pull myself together. Many times I’d wake up in the middle of the night screaming, with tears streaming down my face. I could see the car coming toward me, as if it was happening to me. This went on for months. Then I returned to Los Angeles and work. Something very profound had happened in my life, but I had chosen not to deal with it. I never wanted to talk about it, and even when I would be at home with my mother and father, I never wanted them to discuss it. I felt that what was done was done.

I went to Mexico, New York, France and Spain, sometimes to work, but mainly as an excuse to run. For 10 years I went from one series to another without ever getting hold of something and making it work for me. I was never totally committed. It was just a means to an end, a way to live and survive and to allow me to keep on running. There was a period of self-destructiveness—years of drinking too much, partying too much and playing too much. It was all my way of escaping.

It was very difficult for me to have friends at all, not to mention a romantic relationship. I never wanted to share much of myself with anybody. What I had experienced with my twin was an automatic sharing and something I took for granted. We didn’t need friends; we had each other.

I didn’t go into therapy because of my twin but because of a general dissatisfaction with my life. But everything that surfaced had to do with my twin. This was real tough to go through. Not so much the fact that he had died, but all the guilt I felt afterward. Secretly there was a part of me that had almost said, “If my twin brother were not here, maybe I could have a bigger career or a better career, and we wouldn’t have to share.” I think it’s a feeling many people have but never admit to. There were so many things to deal with that it was like opening a wound again, and there was a point during the therapy when I thought I might be having a nervous breakdown. But I realized finally that it was not more than I could handle and that I wanted to get in touch with all these things within me and understand them.

Talking about Dirk is something that still doesn’t come easily. I think about him all the time, but mostly about the wonderful experiences we shared. He will always be a part of my life.

I think I’ve done a 180-degree turnaround now. I’d always skimmed the surface of life and never allowed myself to get under anything. Now whenever I’m in contact with people, it’s always much more intense and positive. I’m much more open to them. Until this past year I never took my career very seriously. But getting in touch with myself has made me want to touch other lives in a positive way, and that’s why I’ve formed my own production company, Earlimart, with my manager, Erik Sterling. We’re producing an ABC Afterschool Special on dyslexia. [Dack’s 11-year-old godson, Shannon, is dyslexic]

I was always like a child and didn’t want to assume responsibilities. My mother used to say, “When are you ever going to grow up?” I think that’s all changed. I believe that our ultimate reason for being here is our spiritual growth, to reach the ultimate good and find peace of mind. To find such peace and experience it and live it is quite an achievement. Now, that’s what I’m after.