JILL IRELAND, WHO DIED LAST MAY at 54, never gave up her very public six-year battle with breast cancer. Her struggle has inspired thousands of women facing the same disease. Now, one of her final wishes—to bring her 1989 autobiographical book Life Lines to television—is about to be fulfilled. Yet NBC’s Reason for Living: The Jill Ireland Story, which stars Jill Clayburgh as the English-born actress, will air May 20 only over the strong protests of Ireland’s husband, Charles Bronson.
Bronson, ironically, is not this script’s major male player. The story focuses on Ireland’s relationship with Jason (Neill Barry), the son she adopted with first husband David McCalhun in 1962. As a teenager, Jason began an addiction to heroin that, despite Ireland’s efforts to help, finally claimed him. He died at 27, just six months before his mother succumbed to cancer. Still, the movie ends at a happy, if brief, interlude in 1989, with Jason clean and Ireland’s disease in remission.
It is an ending that would have suited Ireland, who had referred to her illness as “a gift” that had “strengthened my marriage and my family.” Jason’s addiction bonded mother and son because, she maintained, “We both know what pain is.”
But if Bronson tolerated her decision to go public with that pain during her life, friends say that after Ireland’s death he became more protective of the family’s memories and concerned about the movie’s effect on the six surviving children from the couple’s own marriage and their two previons marriages.
“Charlie is just a very private man,” says Reason for Living producer Bonny Dore, who worked closely on the project with Ireland. Eight months after Jill’s death, she says, Bronson allegedly refused to accept the $50,000 she had agreed to pay for the TV rights to the book.
Dore, who claims that “Jill deeply wanted this movie done,” sued Bronson’s production company for $3 million for breach of contract. They settled out of court. According to one of the lawyers, the agreement allowed Bronson to review and approve the script and forbade the producers from using Branson’s name to promote the film.
If anyone underestimated Bronson’s tenacity, it was not his wile. “Don’t mistake Charlie for a big pussycat,” Ireland once told a friend. reporter Vernon Scott. “He is a great, strong jungle cat, and you don’t mess around with him.”
Nevertheless, the 22-year marriage was, by most accounts, a great love story. During Ireland’s last days, recalls Scott, “Charlie was always at her side in the hospital—morning, noon and night. And though friends recall the actress’s unusual courage, finally even her strength found its limits. “She wasn”t always upbeat,” says Marie Kreps, a nurse who cared for Ireland during her final months. “”There were times when she’d moan, ‘I just don’t know how I can make it.’ But she fought to the end. I don’t think she or Charlie ever really accepted that she would die until the last two weeks.”
A year later, Bronson, now 69, is still coming to grips with his loss. He recently completed his first movie in six years, Indian Runner, directed by Sean Penn. The tabloids have linked him will British actress Jenny Seagrove, 32, the girlfriend of director and Bronson buddy Michael winner, but ghost still haunt the taciturn star. “I asked him once whether it was hard to be alone.” says Bronson’s old friend Neile McQueen Toffel. “And he answered, ‘No. It’s just hard being without her.’ ”
ELEANOR HOOVER, DAN KNAPP in Los Angeles