While the world at large may differentiate between movie stars and TV performers, the Hollywood aristocracy itself allows at least one exception. No less an arbiter of the “A” list than Joyce (The Users) Haber recognizes David Janssen as one of the town’s most elegant dressers, biggest spenders and most generous tippers. Which is not to suggest that the ex-Fugitive is a climber. Sure, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff pays a call when he’s on the Coast, and Jack Valenti (the old LBJ aide now president of the Motion Picture Association of America) may have taken a boogie lesson Chez Janssen. But the teacher was Cheryl Tiegs, and it wouldn’t be a Janssen party if it didn’t also include nouveau types like Alice Cooper and Rod Stewart.
Indeed, David Janssen, 47, is high-living proof that one can be atop the Pecking order without being as staid as Gregory. After the final wrap party of one of his four TV series (Harry O), David simply disappeared without even a call to his wife, Dani. “By the time he got home, of course I was angry,” she recounts. “I opened the door, and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘Tell me you didn’t pay the ransom!’ ”
Nowadays no one could even calculate the price on the head of David Janssen. The last quotation was $9.5 million, and that was in 1966, when the dollar was a serious currency. Indeed, David could probably maintain his storied lifestyle (which has included two Rolls-Royces, race horses and a private plane) just from the residuals of his most famous series, The Fugitive (1963-67), of which he owns 23 percent. But he still wakes up at 5:30 every morning of the year, usually to study scripts and do background research on properties he’s involved in. Says Dani: “I’ve never known an actor who works as much as he does.”
Already this year David’s appeared in two TV movies and shot two features in Europe and Africa. Then he barely finished the CBS miniseries premiering this week, The Word, the Irving Wallace saga about a long-lost “Gospel” that refutes the Crucifixion, before he did two segments of NBC’s maxiseries, James Michener’s Centennial. (He previously completed narration of the 26 hours.)
For this role, part of the rigorous preparation was getting his playing weight down to 175. “I’m not going to sit here and watch you eat,” he snaps as his cook-housekeeper offers an irresistible dish of chilis rellenos. “I’ve got three pounds to lose by tomorrow, and I’ll be all right if I just don’t see any food.” Janssen himself admits that his total absorption during an acting assignment can make him irritable. “It’s like going into training,” he says, sipping a glass of chilled Soave Bolla, one indulgence that his crash diet permits. “It may be a little hard to live with me—my energy and enthusiasm are all in the work, and I come home drained.” Indeed it isn’t easy for Dani, 42, a shapely blonde used to commanding any man’s undivided attention. Worse, Dani—revered, even among the town’s other leading gossipists, as “the Mouth”—had to sigh the other morning, “He hasn’t heard a word I’ve said in three days.”
Show business was in David’s blood almost from infancy in the unlikely town of Naponee, Nebr. His given name was David Harold Meyer, and his dad, Harold Meyer, was a banker. But mother Berniece Dalton had been Miss Nebraska in 1928, runner-up that year in the International Pageant of Pulchritude and a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl. By the time he was 6 months old David had won a nationwide Sears “Prettiest Baby” contest. When he was 4 his parents were divorced and, according to David, Berniece left him with his grandparents while she went on the road.
Eventually she settled in L.A. and in 1940 married Eugene Janssen, a trucking executive. David joined them at that point, he says, and adopted his stepfather’s surname. Berniece adamantly denies that she ever neglected her son. David, she contends, moved to California with her, chaperoned her on dates and “I even took him on my honeymoon with Gene Janssen.” Dismissing her son’s contrary recollections, she adds, “David makes things up. He’s a true actor—he just says whatever pops in his head.”
Both would agree, in any case, that Berniece was an aggressive stage mother. At 14 David played Johnny Weissmuller’s kid brother in Swamp Fire. “I knew Johnny,” says Berniece, “but David got the job himself because he was such a good swimmer.” Janssen felt at the time that “acting was nothing but a way to make a few extra dollars. And it beat the hell out of babysitting or mowing lawns.” He was a dynamo child who read Hemingway, listened to Beethoven and had already developed a photographic memory (he can learn a page of dialogue in five minutes). He was a superb athlete as well at Los Angeles’ Fairfax High, but his dreams of glory—as well as a UCLA scholarship—were ended by a pole-vaulting injury. (Even after a recent knee operation, he’s still unable to play tennis, though he manages golf.) That ended his college ambitions, he says. “I began to pursue a career in acting with more dedication.”
David’s early years as an actor were lean: strawhat in Maine; little theater groups in L.A.; a “provisional” (i.e., dollarless) contract with 20th Century-Fox, which dropped him because his big ears and voice reminded everyone of Clark Gable’s. Finally he landed a Universal deal, “my first big break. I was always the leading man’s best friend’s best friend.” Between 1951 and 1956 he cranked out 32 movies, despite a two-year break for a stateside Army tour during the Korean war.
The turning point in Janssen’s career came in 1957 when the late Dick Powell hired him for the title role in TV’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Then in 1963 came The Fugitive, a continuing story about an Indiana physician on the lam after being wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife. The Fugitive lasted four years, won three Emmy nominations for Janssen and made him a millionaire. The concluding episode became such a national event that a Baltimore Orioles-Minnesota Twins baseball telecast was canceled and 30 million viewers tuned in—a record at the time. He did two subsequent series—O’Hara, U.S. Treasury in 1971-72 and Harry O in 1974-76. Never again, he now declares. “There’s no time to rewrite or fix things. It’s not emotionally satisfying.” Yet he doesn’t apologize for his concentration on the small screen, declaring that “in the last five years television has produced better stuff than the movies.”
As for the women in David’s life, he was married from 1958 to 1968 to Ellie Graham, a model and interior decorator. He had met starlet Dani Crayne back in 1954 when both were under contract to Universal. But Dani abandoned her career, such as it was, to marry singer Buddy Greco in 1960. David was a friend throughout, and they moved in together in 1971 following her divorce. They were finally married in 1975.
Fourteen months after the wedding the Janssens separated, as David literally made beautiful music with Carol Connors, the Oscar-nominated lyricist (for the Rocky theme song). Janssen collaborated with her on half a dozen songs, including the theme for his 1977 TV film, A Sensitive, Passionate Man. Eventually, though, Carol reports, “David began to disappear on weekends, to go to his Malibu home, and when I’d hear from him on Monday he’d tell me that Dani had been down to bring over some pots and pans. After the third weekend,” Carol sighs, “I had to come to terms with the fact that not only were the pots and pans moving in but so was Dani. My only regret is that since we are no longer together David has given up lyric writing. It’s everybody’s loss, because he really has beautiful things to say.”
The five-month rift in the marriage was caused by “a total breakdown of communications,” says Dani. “David went out and did what he wanted to, and I went into Science of Mind [a religious-philosophical sect]. I learned so many things about myself, and I changed so much. I learned to forgive and forget.”
Since their reconciliation the Janssens have found a modus vivendi. Dani, an eclectic and talented chef, is one of Hollywood’s most celebrated hostesses. Indeed, their entertaining and social standing mean more to her than to him. Their residences are her responsibility. One is a million-dollar glass penthouse condominium in Century City. The other is a Malibu pad worth $1.5 million. Both are triumphs not of buying power but of design daring (the penthouse has movable interior walls; the beach house kitchen is a camouflaged part of the living room). “Every electric socket in that house is a joy to me,” exults Dani. “It’s the only place where David can really relax, where he can be totally irresponsible. All he has to worry about there is what he’s going to read, or what game to watch on TV, or whether he wants to walk up the beach or down.” For his part, Janssen has no expectation that his wife will become a beach bum. “She is definitely not an outdoor girl. Her idea of roughing it is getting slow room service at a hotel.”
Where David stands on family matters is harder to pin down. Tough-minded about most issues, he seems ambivalent about parenthood, musing, “It’s hard to say if my stepfather was a good substitute for my real father. He certainly filled the gap. I don’t know how important a father is—that’s too deep for me.” David’s mother, who would like to be an active mentor but feels shut out, concludes: “He’s a loner, very quiet and moody. You will never reach him, really. Way down deep he’s his own person.” David responds: “We don’t agree on a great many things. Like a lot of mothers, she wants to live vicariously through her children, but it won’t work.”
Dani probably has the best line on her complicated man. Janssen never graduated from college but is well read. He hasn’t outgrown Beethoven but has come to appreciate Waylon Jennings. His screen credits notwithstanding, he is a man of taste. When Dani once served caviar on a plain dish, he demanded the Lalique crystal. Dani protested, “But it’s only for you and me.” Retorted Janssen: “I bought that dish because I like it. I didn’t buy it for guests.” It’s almost but not quite as chauvinist as it sounds. David is more domesticated than he once was, but Dani still keeps him on a loose leash. On Friday nights he plays poker with “the boys”—who include old friend Polly Bergen. “Every once in a while,” reports Dani, “David will say ‘Thank you’ to me, and I say, ‘For what?’ ‘For giving me my freedom and the space I need,’ he tells me.” David Janssen may still be the fugitive kind, but at least he now says thank you.