By Sue Reilly
Updated October 01, 1979 12:00 PM

She was a delicately beautiful young actress, often compared to Grace Kelly, but trapped in rotten movies like Once Is Not Enough. He was a born-to-dazzle young producer who went bankrupt at 30. People in Hollywood said cruel things about them. In their first year of marriage, Deborah Raffin and Michael Viner learned where the pits were. “It would have broken a lot of young couples,” Viner says. “For some reason it brought us closer.”

That was five years ago. Now at 26 Raffin is moving again, on the strength of the 1979 TV movie, Willa, a starring role in the TV film based on Brooke Hayward’s best-seller, Haywire, airing early next year, and the female lead in this week’s NBC miniseries, The Last Convertible (Sept. 24-26). Viner, 35, is managing such solid performers as Cristina Raines, John Amos and Raffin. He is also producing To Elvis, With Love, a movie starring Raffin and Diane (A Little Romance) Lane scheduled for next year.

People are still complaining about Michael and Deborah, but now their criticism goes to the familiar Hollywood issue of Svengali-ism. Is Viner riding his wife’s talent in an overweeningly ambitious campaign to Make It Big? There is no easy answer.

Even a close and admiring friend of the couple says, “Michael, simply, is a male chauvinist. At Deborah’s 26th birthday party, he actually told her when to open her own presents. He insists she’s her own woman, but he likes to keep her in childlike dependence.”

Raffin and Viner, naturally, find talk about manipulation offensive. She nods in agreement as he says, “We worked hard to get where we are today, both aware we had a partner for life. If that sounds corny, I’m sorry.”

Novelist Sidney Sheldon, a skilled observer of miscreant Hollywood, agrees: “Deborah and Michael are lovely people with a cultivated sense of caring for others. She is an actress with a much broader range than most people suspect. Michael has talent and taste as a producer. Anyone who says derisive things about them is going on hearsay or is simply mistaken.”

Adds author-director Nicholas (Seven-Per-Cent Solution) Meyer: “She is the sweet princess in the tower. Michael is the old-fashioned protector, who surrounds her with luxury and care.”

Raffin and Viner met in March 1974 on a blind date. “I couldn’t believe Michael at first,” she recalls. “He kept picking me up in limos and taking me to formal functions. He invited me to Acapulco and brought my parents along. I was a California girl, and I finally asked Michael if he even owned a pair of Levi’s.” He did.

It was too much for a woman to resist, and they were married at the elegant Bel Air Hotel four months after their first date. “I didn’t know anyone there,” remembers Viner. “My best friends at the time, Ringo Starr and [singer-composer] Harry Nilsson, were off in the bar getting drunk.”

Viner is the son of a late Washington, D.C. businessman who owned a chain of laundries. His mother is a former 20th Century-Fox contract player. “I checked in and out of a number of rich-kid schools,” Viner says. “I remember one where your parents had to be so anxious to get you accepted they would donate a building.” Grandpa, who sold insurance to Darryl Zanuck, couldn’t wait to place young Michael in the Fox mail-room during the summers. “By the time I was 15, I thought I could run the studio,” he smiles.

He entered Boston University in 1962 for one semester, then transferred to Georgetown University School of Foreign Service for a year. For the next three years he worked in a record shop and promoted tennis tournaments before taking a plunge into politics. Viner served as a gofer and campaign aide for Robert F. Kennedy during the 1968 campaign; RFK’s assassination devastated him emotionally. With ex-pro football player Rosey Grier, another close Kennedy supporter, Viner aimlessly rented a house in Los Angeles.

His studio connections finally landed him a series of jobs as an assistant producer, then a move to the record business. His first was a blank LP entitled The Best of Marcel Marceao (a deliberate misspelling because Viner hadn’t checked with Marceau). Put out as a joke, it sold 24,000 copies. Viner worked with the Sylvers and Sammy Davis Jr., among others. From 1973 to 1978, he also did sporadic legwork for columnist Jack Anderson in Hollywood and Europe, producing “absolutely marvelous stuff,” according to Anderson associate Les Whitten. In 1974, however, the bottom fell out of his record enterprise. He co-signed a loan for a client who defaulted, and he wound up owing $340,000. Viner declared bankruptcy shortly after his wedding.

Raffin’s mother, Trudy Marshall, like Viner’s, toiled in bit parts at Fox in the ’40s. Her father is a wealthy meat broker, and the family of five lived in L.A. Deborah studied acting as a teenager and when she was a sophomore at Valley College in Van Nuys, an agent stopped her in an elevator and asked if she’d like to be in movies. Raffin’s dubious father checked him out, and a resultant screen test led to a role in 40 Carats. Then came The Dove and Once Is Not Enough. Modeling for fashion magazines kept her face before the public while she and Viner rebuilt her career.

The two now live handsomely in Beverly Hills and also own a 16-acre farm in Stowe, Vt., where, says Raffin, “We can enjoy living with real people.” Their California parties include writers, artists and politicians, and are often enlivened by Michael’s bizarre sense of humor. At one affair, a seal guarded the entrance (“the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” joked Michael, since Deborah has become a regular on that magazine’s cover). Inside, a marine in combat gear took names, a fortune-teller worked the room, and a woman who claimed to be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s pregnant daughter went into labor. They were all actors hired by Viner.

Raffin’s appearance as Willa, the spunky woman truck driver, represented a landmark in her career. In careful preparation for it, she waitressed in a small restaurant and practiced driving a semi up and down the streets of Whittier, Calif. “to figure out which of the 13 gears I was supposed to be in.” She insists, “I would not do a television series like Three’s Company or Charlie’s Angels. They are insulting to the intelligence and provide horrible role models for young girls. I want to have pride in the work I do.”

Who could disagree? Certainly not the man who manages her. “Deborah learned with Once Is Not Enough,” Viner says, “that a wooden performance in a badly directed film will negate your talent and cancel your opportunities. She’s not going to get caught like that again.”