July 22, 1991 12:00 PM

ACTOR JAMES FRANCISCUS WAS ONE OF life’s gifted for whom the gifts never quite worked the way he wanted. Missouri-born, he became an authentic blue blood of the Social Register, an English major at Yale and an accomplished film and TV actor. Starting with his 1958 TV role as a sharp young cop in Naked City, Franciscus went on to win popularity and acclaim as the earnest, engaging schoolteacher in Mr. Novak (1963-65) and as a blind investigator in Longstreet (1971-72). He married Kitty Wellman, daughter of director William Wellman, and fathered four daughters. And he became a producer who brought to the small screen such now-classic movies as Heidi and Jane Eyre. He was a splendid tennis player, a sky diver and a scuba diver. In short, he had the textbook trappings of the American-dream realized.

Or so it seemed. Last week Franciscus, a heavy smoker and a hard drinker, died of emphysema at 57, and friends linked his personal deterioration to his career decline. According to his longtime publicist, Phil Paladino, the actor had last year begun to complain, “The scripts I get I don’t like, and I won’t lower myself to do them. The ones I want, I don’t get.” The actor’s onetime drinking buddy, George Peppard, says Franciscus was “talented, very competitive and driven. He was a perfectionist. He’d rewrite scripts and make the best of any job he was doing. But Jim without work was like a man without a country. When he couldn’t work anymore, I knew he was in deep trouble.”

Franciscus’ marriage to Kitty Wellman broke up a decade ago. He married his second wife, Carla, in the mid-’80s and continued to live on his two-acre North Hollywood estate, turning out scripts that never saw the light of film. Pals such as Peppard quit drinking, but Franciscus didn’t. “He refused to work,” says Peppard, “and he cut himself off from his friends. He became reclusive. All I know is that he was successful, wealthy and unhappy.”

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