“I’m sick of you,” screams the excitable Sheila Brackman, hissing, snapping and all but clawing the eyes of her philandering husband, Douglas. “I’m sick of your bald head and your hairy back. I’m sick of you humiliating me with your sickening affairs!”
Ain’t love grand? For the past two years, the monumental spats of the battling Brackmans have become a staple of NBC’s L.A. Law. They’ve fought and yowled like two felines in a sack, mostly because of Douglas’ tomcat ways. This season’s story line will land them in divorce court to sunder the onscreen marriage that the Los Angeles Times has called “a match made in hell.”
But don’t expect anything of the sort from actors Alan Rachins, 46, and Joanna Frank, 47, the real-life husband and wife who play the Brackmans. By all appearances, they’ve achieved the sort of intensely homey relationship that Douglas and Sheila would find incomprehensible. Spago is only a short distance from their three-bedroom West Hollywood house, but Rachins and Frank resist it, preferring to spend most nights at home, “parenting” son Robbie, 6. Their walls are covered with family photographs; in the yard there’s a neatly tended vegetable garden. “When we met, neither of us wanted any drama in our lives,” says Frank, caressing Rachins’ leg as they sit thigh by thigh. “We just wanted a relationship where we could get along and be happy day-to-day.”
This Ozzie and Harriet idyll didn’t happen without some effort, though. Between them, Rachins and Frank exhausted just about every human-potential treatment known to Southern California—including the ministrations of a nutritionist and regular rolfing sessions—in their new-age zeal to find the perfect mate. Frank spent years meditating to “make contact with my essential self,” she says. Rachins actually devised a short quiz that he would pop on each new woman in his dating days. “I developed these three questions,” he says. ” ‘Do you want to have children?’ ‘Will you go into therapy to work out a relationship?’ And ‘How do you express anger? I’m very direct when I get mad.’ There were some short dates, but that was fine with me.”
Rachins and Frank worked hard to find domestic nirvana because they felt deprived as children. Both grew up in troubled, if affluent, homes. Rachins’ mother died when he was 10, and his father, a hard-driving Boston executive, often left his son to fend for himself in their huge house. Frank insists that during her New York childhood, her artist parents showered all their attention on her older brother, Stevie—better known to us as Steven Bochco, executive producer of L.A. Law. (Frank began using her mother’s maiden name as a young actress. “Bochco was so difficult to pronounce I dropped it,” she says. “Little did I know.”)
Frank started auditioning for theater parts at 15 and suffered many rejections. She did land a small role in Elia Kazan’s 1963 film, America America, but she hated Hollywood and soon scurried back to New York. She entered her Earth Mother period, flitting about Manhattan barefoot, living on brown rice. “I started to meditate, and I used that period to re-parent myself,” Frank says, displaying her fondness for psychobabble.
Rachins was having no better luck. He dropped out of the Wharton School of Finance to avoid going into the family food-manufacturing company. “I knew it would have put me under [my father’s] thumb,” Rachins says. In fact, it was Rachins’ problems with his father that first got him interested in acting. As a teenager he’d seen Rebel Without a Cause. “James Dean yelled at his father during the movie,” he recalls. “I thought that was great, getting paid to yell at your father.” In 1963, Rachins moved to New York and began studying and auditioning, but his only notable success was a part in the original cast of the nudie review Oh! Calcutta! (Though Rachins never healed the rift with his father, who died in 1969, he has done him the posthumous honor of hanging his photo behind Douglas Brackman’s desk on L.A. Law.)
By 1977 both Frank and Rachins, still looking for a break, had drifted to Hollywood, where they met in an acting class. For Frank, that first meeting seemed like the big payoff for the many hours she’d spent in the lotus position. During one of her reveries, she says, she’d seen a vision of her future husband, and lo and behold he materialized in the form of a balding, 6-foot would-be actor. “I saw Alan and knew he was the man I had been waiting for,” she says. “I got giddy, like you do when you’re 16 years old. I knew immediately I would marry him.”
Rachins wasn’t so sure. After a string of dead-end “six-month specials,” he felt burned by romance. Despite his home-testing procedures, he says, “I always picked people who were not good for me—women who didn’t want to be with me, or were troubled or were difficult.” Frank pursued, and Rachins finally asked her out. He popped his three questions, heard answers he liked, then popped the question. They married in March 1978. Their son was born four years later.
Once Robbie arrived, Frank began teaching acting to pay the bills. Rachins, still unemployed, stayed at home, giving Robbie the attention he never got from his own father. Frank, too, tried to make sure Robbie got the love she felt denied as a child. “I was an overweight, angry, unattractive little girl who was very left out of the party that was constantly going on at my house,” recalls Frank. “Stevie was allowed to go out on the street and play ball with the guys. When the holidays came, he would get things like a tape recorder and I would get handkerchiefs. I was brought up to be pretty and quiet and do well in school and get married to a rich man. And shop at Saks Fifth Avenue.”
“And you’ve done all those things very successfully,” says Rachins. But Frank does not laugh.
Nor, it seems, did she devote much of her decade-long self-discovery program to mending emotional fences with brother Steve. When Bochco began casting L.A. Law in 1985, says Frank, “Steve really didn’t know who I was. I don’t think he felt he could trust me.” She, meanwhile, was “afraid that if I asked [Bochco] for a job, he would say no. It’s too uncomfortable to go begging your brother for a job.”
Bochco understands how his sister might feel that way. “Joanna’s very proud,” he says. “I think a discomfort with holding out the hand is a family trait.” He insists, though, that he never had a bias for or against casting Frank and Rachins. “The thing you don’t want to do is shoehorn [characters] in,” Bochco says. “Then you’re just handing out favors.” After seeing the couple in the 1986 film Always, in which they also played spatting spouses, Bochco saw a place for them on L.A. Law. And Sheila Brackman will still have a sizable role after the television divorce.
The show has given Frank and Rachins a combined income well into six figures and something more—a built-in safety valve for all those little tensions that build up in even the best relationships. “Sheila and Douglas Brackman say horrible things to each other,” Frank says. “It’s fun doing all this melodramatic stuff that you wouldn’t do in life.”
—Jacob Young, and Michael Alexander in Los Angeles