June 08, 1998 12:00 PM

For Bo Derek, 41, who spent two-thirds of her life with a man 30 years her senior, the death of her husband, John Derek, 71, was something she thought she was prepared for. “I don’t think it’s hit her yet,” says her sister Kerry Perez, 35. “She’s in sort of a numb stage. She’s been with him since she was 15, and she’s never known another love. Because he was so much older than her, they were very frank and honest that this was a likelihood. Of course,” Perez adds, “you’re never really prepared for it. And it’s never the right time. Ever.”

John Derek’s time came during what had begun as a terrific week. On May 18, the former actor-turned-beneficent-Svengali—who was married to actresses Ursula Andress and Linda Evans before his shrewd marketing skills transformed Bo into a cornrowed goddess in Blake Edwards’s 1979 comedy 10—learned that NBC had picked up Bo’s new series, Wind on Water, for its fall schedule. Two days later, Perez says, “John was in a fabulous mood,” a picture of health who still worked out regularly in his home gym. But later that day, while talking to a friend on the 46-acre ranch in California’s Santa Ynez Valley that Derek shared with Bo, he collapsed after a spontaneous problem, akin to an aneurysm, seized his aorta. He was rushed to a hospital in Santa Maria, Calif., where Bo (who was doing business in L.A.) soon joined him. Doctors performed a lengthy but unsuccessful operation to repair Derek’s heart. On May 22, Derek died peacefully with Bo and his daughter Sean at his side. (His remains were later cremated; the family wouldn’t say what became of the ashes.)

His wife’s first thought after his death was making sure that Russell Derek. 48—John’s son by his first wife, actress Pati Behrs—not hear the news on radio or television. She dispatched a family friend to the Santa Barbara hospital that is home to Russell, who was left a quadriplegic after a ’70s motorcycle accident. “Bo was so sweet to worry about who was going to tell my brother,” says John’s only other child, daughter Sean Derek, 44, a writer who once published a tell-all book about her dad but later reconciled with him. “They beat the news to my brother by 15 minutes.”

The happy tangle of family ties was typical for Derek, a man of such preternatural magnetism that two of his three ex-wives remained friendly not only with him but also with each other and with Bo. Behrs was his wife from the late ’40s until the mid-’50s. He was married to Andress (Dr. No) from the late ’50s to the mid-’60s. He and Evans (Dynasty) wed in the ’60s and split in ’73. Derek was still married to Evans when he met Bo—a virtual double for Evans and Andress—while directing 1973’s And Once Upon a Time in Greece. Says Derek’s friend and former costar Mickey Knox (1949’s Knock on Any Door, starring Humphrey Bogart): “I was there once when Bo was on the phone with Linda, and it sounded like she was an old school girlfriend. Ursula visits them quite often. She has her own room [at the ranch],” says Knox. “Even when the relationship was over, you wanted him in your life because he was so unique.”

Unique indeed. Once one of Hollywood’s hunkiest actors (1949’s All the King’s Men; 1956’s The Ten Commandments), Derek abruptly abandoned his career in the ’60s. “He wasn’t very comfortable acting and felt that he wasn’t good enough,” recalls Knox. “The first picture we did together, he said, ‘Boy, I wish I was on a ranch.’ ” And it was a ranch to which he shortly repaired, raising horses and playing with his dogs, only occasionally emerging to direct such films as Tarzan the Ape Man (1981) and Bolero (1984), both starring the wife he so adored. “Bo and John had an incredible marriage for 20-some years,” says Sean Derek. “How many of us can say that? It ended sadly, but it ended while they were still in love. It’s beautiful.”

Kyle Smith

Monica Rizzo in Los Angeles