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It Was Cheese, Not the High Seas, That Brought John Wassel and Lauren Tewes Together

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‘I told him at lunchtime I thought he was very pretty’

“Me really proposed,” says actress Lauren Tewes, 25. “I proposed first, but it didn’t count. It was on the phone. I said, ‘Blah-blah, let’s get married and how’s the weather in Chicago!’ ”

“Here was a lady I wanted to spend my life with,” recalls her husband, John Wassel, 33, a TV commercials director. “I wanted to make a commitment through marriage—the only proper thing to do. Besides, she had a hell of a contract.”

“You just wanted someone who could cook better spaghetti than your mother,” replies Tewes.

“You can’t cook,” he mumbles. “You’re terrible—ghastly.”

“Except spaghetti.”

“It would bore the tears out of me to have a wife who cooked and cleaned house every day,” Wassel concludes. (They have a maid named Stella.)

It’s tempting to think that Tewes (pronounced TWEEZE) and Wassel have caught a case of coy bantering from ABC’s The Love Boat, aboard which Lauren plays the well-meaning social director Julie McCoy. But the affliction is chronic; they’ve been exchanging one-liners since Wassel asked Tewes to say “cheese” at their first meeting.

He interviewed her for a Hickory Farms dairy commercial on Feb. 1, 1977. Tewes was just one of the auditioning blondes. But when Wassel was back home on his living room floor, going over 8×10 glossies of the day’s supplicants, cupid—or at least ABC—took a hand. “For ambience,” Wassel had turned on his TV—with no sound—to Family. Just as he came to Tewes’ photograph, he glanced up. There was the same face onscreen in a supporting role (“I was the subplot,” Lauren demurs). Wassel turned up the volume. “She was fabulous,” he recalls, and next morning he told his clients: “I’ve found the cheese lady!”

The lady herself was smitten at the first rehearsal. “I told him at lunchtime I thought he was very pretty,” says Lauren. “He blushed.” Wassel invited her to a party that evening.

“I knew what that meant and I said, ‘You bet!’ ” she says. After the party they returned to Tewes’ apartment. “It was wonderful!” she jokes. “He really enjoyed my grandmother.” (Wassel didn’t know Grandma was staying with Lauren at the time.)

After three months of long-distance calls and weekend dates (John’s home base was Chicago, Lauren’s L.A.), Wassel took Tewes to meet his folks in Ohio—and there asked her to marry him (while on one knee). They were married in November 77 at the Bel Air Hotel. The Love Boat crew, which Tewes had joined by then, was out of uniform and in attendance.

Both new husband and wife had led restless lives before anchoring in their contemporary three-bedroom Encino home. Born Cynthia Tewes in Braddock, Pa., Lauren changed her name (“just for the hey of it”) in college. “I can go home and be Cindy and it has nothing to do with what I went through all day.” While her early childhood was spent in industrial Trafford, near Pittsburgh—”I’ve never been back and I never plan to”—her family moved to Whittier, Calif. when she was 8. Her father, a wood pattern maker, still lives there. “We’re lower middle class moved up to middle middle class,” she explains.

To meet other children, Lauren, 11, went to community theater tryouts. She was voted best actress for three of her high school years, then attended Rio Hondo Junior College and U of C at Riverside before enrolling in the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts Theater in 1973. “I was poor,” she wails. “I lived on artichokes.” More serious traumas were her mother’s death from cancer in 1976 and the breakup of an old romance.

Tewes’ first acting job was a dual role as villainess and heroine—she changed from red dress to blue—in a Knott’s Berry Farm melodrama in 1974. After four months she headed for Bur-bank, enrolling in film and TV workshops. For income (and to avoid those artichokes), she took waitressing jobs (“I carry plates beautifully”) and didn’t quit until 1977, when she appeared in 20 commercials on the air simultaneously.

Lauren’s dramatic debut—in an ABC late-night mystery called Rock-a-Die Baby—consisted of one line: “You don’t look so lonesome to me.” In the pilot Courtroom, her speech was: “I’ll make some coffee.” On Charlie’s Angels she answered: “Pine Parish Prison Farm for Women.” (“Say it fast, in a Southern drawl.”) That role won her the part in Family, which in turn led to a Starsky & Hutch that got her the Love Boat audition just after she met Wassel.

He was born in Highland Heights, Ohio. His father, George, is an engineering consultant; he has three sisters, one brother. After graduation from Mayfield High, John attended Cain Park School of Design for two years, then transferred to Ohio State, studying fine arts and radio-TV. By graduation in 1968, Wassel had worked for a CBS affiliate for six months, directing evening news, a kids’ program and The Woody Hayes Show. (“It was a pain in the ass working with him.”) After the Army, Wassel ski-bummed around Europe until a broken leg forced him home.

He landed in Chicago, which he thought offered better opportunities for a beginning director. It took him one and a half years to get a job driving a truck for FilmFair, one of the biggest U.S. producers of commercials. Fired from that $70-a-week job, he tried freelance fashion photography until he was finally given the chance to produce and direct commercials. In 1977 Wassel won the International Broadcasting Award for the “World’s Best Commercial,” a health warning for Blue Cross that showed a banquet hall of overindulging monkeys.

When he met Cindy, as he calls her, Wassel was commuting to the Coast for taping. He soon started his own company but after five months returned to FilmFair. Wassel is currently negotiating to direct for another company.

Now Tewes’ $250,000-a-year Love Boat salary is banked; John pays all the bills from his commercials, which include Shell and Lincoln-Mercury. After he and Tewes put in their long days, according to Lauren, they “sit around and kiss for a while, then kiss some more and go to bed.” On Saturday nights the Wassels videotape Love Boat at home. “I mention points to Lauren about her acting,” says John, “and she critiques the direction.” Tewes would like to branch out into features, acting and directing. Of her appearance in last winter’s made-for-TV Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, Tewes says, “I love the Cowboys, the cheerleaders and Dallas—I just didn’t love the movie very much.”

As for viewers who assume Tewes is like social director McCoy: “Julie’s tragic flaw is that she doesn’t know what to do with men,” explains Lauren. “I’m a lot smarter than she is.”