By Sue Reilly
September 04, 1978 12:00 PM

In the made-for-CBS movie Happily Ever After, running September 5, a rube comes out of nowhere to storm the heart of an aspiring singer. The singer is played by Suzanne Somers, who needs no introduction. The rube is played by Bruce Boxleitner, 28, whose name might be a household word only if mistaken for a cleanser.

The problem is that Boxleitner’s prime-time hours these past years were spent laboring through the seven-pound, 20-hour script of How the West Was Won as young posse-dodger Luke Macahan. “I figure I’ve swallowed about 100 tons of prairie dust, taken a lot of crap from other actors about working in a Western and been hanging in limbo four years waiting for ABC to decide what to do with the show,” drawls Boxleitner of what co-star James Arness calls TV’s longest-running nonseries. “But I’m a stubborn German,” Bruce adds of the highly rated periodic show’s chances for serialdom. “I’m determined to stick it out.”

Meanwhile the role has brought him burgeoning underground fame as a throwback to the manly, uncomplicated cowboy heroes of yesteryear. His executive producer, John Mantley, thinks Boxleitner is nothing less than the next Redford. In any case, thanks to the miniseries Bruce has roped himself a wife. “We get kidded a lot about incest,” he laughs of his marriage to model-actress Kathryn Holcomb, 23, who plays his younger sister in West. Though “smitten” (his own word) with Kitty at their first meeting on the show’s lonely Kanab, Utah location, Bruce had to get sick with dust-induced “desert fever” to outmaneuver her previous boyfriend. “He could hardly breathe,” remembers Kitty. “I took him to my doctor, who gave him a shot, and then I took him home with me. I put him in the bathtub to soak. My boyfriend chose that moment to come over.” Exit boyfriend. The incident appeals to Boxleitner’s sense of humor, as does the fact that after two years as bunkmates he was napping while his own father and Kitty decreed all the marriage arrangements.

His dad is a CPA, but Boxleitner grew up in Crystal Lake, Ill. with Tom Sawyer summers (“milking the cows, playing Robin Hood in the woods, riding a pony of my own”) on his grandfather’s farm. Then when the family moved to the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, Bruce found “I was really a country bumpkin. I didn’t fit in.” By the time he reached Mount Prospect High, though, his ’52 Hudson Hornet (“very much in demand with my friends because it had a huge back seat”) had improved his social status. And he had found his niche in drama class. Bruce credits his teacher, Mrs. Patricia Lewkowicz, with convincing his parents he should enter Chicago’s Goodman School of Drama instead of college. “If it hadn’t been for her,” he says, “I’d probably be out pumping gas today.”

Shortly after his 1971 graduation from the school, he snagged the lead in the satirical play Status Quo Vadis, which ran for 18 months in Chicago and Washington before closing after one night in New York. “I hated New York,” Bruce remembers. “It’s dirty and cramped and everyone was unbelievably uptight.” That left L.A. “I stepped off the plane and thought I’d reached the Promised Land.” It was a year before he got his first part. Then came a succession of guest shots in Hawaii Five-O, Baretta and Gunsmoke—which led to his 1975 casting in West with boyhood hero Arness.

“I did my share of having the horse go out from under me filming those first shows,” Boxleitner admits, though now he’s become such a frontier freak that he’s joined a group called the Buckskinners, who spend weekends re-creating “the way things were in the 1800s.” Kitty, also outdoorsy, and Bruce dream of ranching in Santa Barbara between jobs. As an interim step, they have just bought a one-acre ranchette with a three-stall stable in the San Fernando Valley.

There should be no trouble retiring the mortgage. Before accepting Happily Ever After, Boxleitner had turned down six TV movie offers and an exclusive ABC contract. So it may not be long before the name Boxleitner is as well-known as, well, Suzanne Somers. “Bruce is absolutely going to be a big star,” says Suzanne of her newest opposite. “He turns women on without turning men off. He’s absolutely darling.”