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Nobody's Angel: Cheryl Ladd

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Scene One: Monte Carlo, February 1981. Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco are holding a TV and film festival at the palace. Cheryl Ladd, who rocketed to fame as Farrah Fawcett’s hair apparent on ABC’s Charlie’s Angels, stands expectantly on line. She is accompanied by her soon-to-be second husband, an affable singer-songwriter named Brian Russell who co-wrote Cheryl’s first single, 1978’s Think It Over. As Ladd, then 29, and her 51-year-old hostess chat, Russell is struck by their resemblance—not so much physical, he recalls, but more “a quality of grace.” Later that night he mentions to his wife-to-be that she should play Grace in a film biography. “Wow!” he recalls her saying. “That’s a pretty good idea.” Scene Two: Hollywood Hills, Calif., December 1982. Despite the death of Princess Grace three months earlier, the filming of The Grace Kelly Story for television continues apace. Dressed in a fur coat and slim gray skirt, her blond waves pulled back Grace Kelly-style, Cheryl Ladd has just completed a courtship scene on the edge of a lake with Ian McShane, who plays Prince Rainier. Flopping down in a director’s chair, she plunges her hand into a tray of fried chicken legs and begins to devour them, bringing back memories of the young Grace Kelly sharing a similar greasy feast with Cary Grant on a Monte Carlo roadside in 1955’s To Catch a Thief. “I’m so excited…I just can’t hide it!” sings Ladd in a husky voice, as McShane contributes an ooh-ooh-ooh falsetto accompaniment. Notes an onlooker: “Some royal couple, huh?”

Between those two scenes lies a tale of Hollywood ambition—and clout—that no one would have expected from the former South Dakota cheerleader. Soon after meeting Grace, Cheryl and Brian took the idea for the movie to Embassy Television which, according to Russell, sold the idea to ABC “within 30 seconds.” Cheryl and Brian’s production company, Koda, made the $3 million docudrama that airs next week. Tracing Kelly’s life from her Philadelphia schoolgirl days through her Oscar-winning film career to her wedding at 26 to Prince Rainier, The Grace Kelly Story may place more emphasis on hairstyles (Ladd wears 52 different ones) and costumes (she dons 64) than on substance. But it’s also significantly short on the jiggles and giggles that marked Ladd’s four-year career as the private eye who bounced onto Charlie’s Angels in 1977

The change, however, is quite deliberate, part of Cheryl’s two-year self-remodeling project. Where, after all, are the Angels of yesteryear? Latecomer Tanya Roberts acted in last summer’s already forgotten The Beastmaster and recently posed nude for a magazine. Shelley Hack is trying to launch a movie career in The King of Comedy. Farrah may have burst her bubble in too many big-screen bombs. Kate Jackson seems to be following Fawcett’s lead: Despite good notices in TV movies, her Making Love didn’t make it at the box office. But ever since the Angels fell, the savvy Ladd has been quietly plotting a splashy return to TV drama. “I don’t think people will ever forget I was an Angel, anymore than they’ll forget Sally Field was The Flying Nun,” reasons Ladd. “I needed some breathing space—and the public needed some from me.”

Last month the comeback began with CBS’ Kentucky Woman, which featured a grimy Ladd in the improbable role of an Appalachian coal miner. Her climb from the pits to the palace next week represents a major challenge to TV’s most successful ex-Angel, Jaclyn Smith. (Smith, coincidentally, made her biggest non-Angels splash in another glossy docudrama, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.) Next Monday night Ladd will be appearing in a time slot opposite Smith, who stars in NBC’s steamy miniseries Rage of Angels.

Grace Kelly is far tamer stuff, but for Russell and Ladd, who sought to emphasize the Cinderella-like aspects of Kelly’s life, the making of the movie was anything but a fairy tale. The Princess initially refused to cooperate, viewing the film as an invasion of her privacy and the saccharine approach as “icky and revolting.” She was particularly peeved, according to a palace insider, by the script’s misleading portrayal of her as a sickly teenager (daughter of an Olympic rowing champion, Grace was, in fact, quite athletic) and by the emphasis on her pre-Rainier romances with designer Oleg Cassini and actor Jean-Pierre Aumont. But viewing a lawsuit as “demeaning,” Grace agreed to meet with Russell in Monte Carlo for two days last summer to suggest script changes. For Russell, Grace’s back-to-the-palace-wall cooperation was tantamount to a blessing.

Two days before the shooting was scheduled to begin, however, the Princess was killed. “Cheryl’s first reaction was no, she couldn’t conceive of going ahead with it,” says Russell. But after word arrived from the palace that it would stand by the deal Princess Grace and Russell had struck, filming began in L.A. on Nov. 15. The early weeks of shooting were done in secret out of respect for the official three-month mourning period following Grace’s death. As evidence of its cooperation, the palace later provided films of the Kelly-Rainier wedding to ensure the movie’s accuracy. Princess Grace’s death “just increased the pressure to do it right,” says Ladd. “I’ve had a few sleepless nights about how I’m playing this role—would she look at it and say, ‘Aahh, that’s just how I felt at that moment’?” Costume designer Noel Taylor also was under pressure—working with a $40,000 budget, he designed the five dozen costumes in three weeks. Several dresses—the wedding gown, the Academy Award dress and others—were close replicas of those worn by Grace, modified to flatter Cheryl’s more petite figure and three-inch-shorter height. With other costumes, Taylor says, he tried for “the look and feel” of the originals. Cheryl’s research into Grace’s life led to admiration. “She seems to have been very levelheaded and decent,” says Ladd. “She had enormous determination about her life.”

And, in some ways, Ladd seems as determined about her own. She has worked with Russell since they first became involved in the fall of 1979 (they married in January 1981), shortly after Cheryl’s breakup with David Ladd, who had been Russell’s close friend. The paparazzi and gossip columnists made things difficult for the new pair at first. “We were dragged through the mud for a while,” recalls Russell, “but it made us cling even closer together.”

With Russell’s guidance, Cheryl displayed her song-and-dance talents in a series of well-received specials with the likes of Ben Vereen, Carol Burnett and Rick Springfield. Following the cancellation of Charlie’s Angels in 1981, Ladd and Russell began an all-out search “for some projects that would get me out of the Charlie’s Angels mold and help people forget it.” In that, they may yet be singularly successful. In addition to The Grace Kelly Story and Kentucky Woman, Ladd’s projects for 1983 include the feature film Now and Forever and a Showtime cable TV performance of The Hasty Heart with Gregory Harrison. “Brian is very important in all of this,” says Cheryl, 31, of her 38-year-old husband. He has been executive producer of the Kelly film and her last two TV specials and composer of several of the songs on Cheryl’s upcoming third LP, Fascinated. “It’s easy to be partners, and to bolster each other. Brian is very strong and aware of who he is. He’s a stabilizing factor in our lives.” The relationship, says Russell, has strengthened Ladd as well. “When I watch the work she’s doing now, it’s obvious her acting has matured. But emotionally too, she’s stronger—she’s very much in charge of her career and of herself.” Though the pair often spend their working time together, Cheryl doesn’t worry about marital overexposure. “I’ve done movies with him and without him,” she says, “and it’s so much nicer to spend these hours with the person you love.”

For the past two and a half years Cheryl and Brian have shared a secluded two-bedroom house on a hill overlooking West Hollywood, affording views of the ocean on smog-free days. They share joint custody of their respective children, Cheryl’s daughter, Jordan, 8, and Brian’s daughter, Lindsey, 6, by first wife singer Brenda Russell. The children spend every other week with Cheryl and Brian. “It’s good for them both to have a sibling,” says Cheryl. “They get on very well together. They’re very good sisters.”

She and Brian say they would like to have a child of their own, “but the time has to be right.” Not now. With Grace and a storyboard full of future projects, life is at its peak. “This last year was a wonderful one for us,” says Cheryl. “We worked hard, we played hard, and we feel very blessed. I think life has a way of kicking you in the pants too, but you have to pick up and move ahead, and it certainly helps if you have a good partner in life.” Most satisfying of all is the easing of the frantic 14-hour-daily Charlie’s Angels pace that helped to destroy her previous marriage. “I find a lot more time to be a mother and a wife,” says Cheryl. “Now we take time for ourselves, time for our lives. The balance is better than it has ever been.”