By David Sheff
February 11, 1980 12:00 PM

Maybe John Derek has a right to resent those terrible things everyone is saying about him these days. He brings forth the universe’s first “10”—his wife, Bo—and the whole world calls him a Svengali or worse. “We lie in bed at night and hold each other and look at one another, wondering if we are the persons we read about or the persons we really know,” complains John. “The last thing I ever wanted was for Bo to be an actress. I’m not too fond of actresses—they’re hard to live with.” Then, as if to prove it, Derek turns to Bo. “Stop eating that goddamn pickle!” he snaps. “You’re crunching in my ear.”

So it goes for the 23-year-old starlet. Since the premiere of “10” (In which she plays the not-so-platonic ideal woman) she has risen from obscurity to replace Farrah and Suzanne as the U.S.’s reigning sex symbol. “Bo has become the nation’s daydream,” proclaims John. She has, at least, helped make the movie into a 10 on a scale of same among box office sleepers, with a gross of $60 million. In the process Bo has boosted the once-struggling Orion Pictures; made Maurice Ravel’s boring Bolero, which she plays during her sex scenes, one of America’s hottest-selling classical records; and set off a Fawcett-like fashion craze, the cornrow coiffure (see following story).

Hard on the heels of Bo’s success, though, has come a clamorous controversy over her excessively protective husband, John, 53 and 30 years her senior. Derek, a handsomely leonine photographer and ex-actor whose previous wives include actresses Ursula Andress and Linda Evans, has taken command of Bo’s life. He answers for her during interviews, second-guesses her directors, prods her to watch her weight and constantly battles photographers who dare aim their viewfinders at Bo’s surprisingly petite 5’3″ frame. (As with Andress and Evans earlier, John took all the shots in the new 12-page nude Playboy layout.) Such control has engendered charges of megalomania, and Derek himself admits that his dominating ways “can be abrasive.” What Hollywood is asking, inevitably, is whether Derek is running his wife’s career or ruining it.

The most urgent brouhaha is over a breach-of-contract lawsuit filed in January by Karen Callan, 33, an ex-model who alleges that Derek dumped her as Bo’s agent and is refusing to pay her for “10”. Callan met its producer, Blake Edwards, at a party at casting time in late 1978. “I’d been told Blake had found lots of 9’s and some 9½’s,” remembers Karen, who was there with actor husband Michael Callan. “But he couldn’t find a 10—a beautiful, unknown girl with a great body who could act.” Callan remembered Bo—whom she’d met five years earlier with John at Hugh Hefner’s place—and told Edwards, “I know someone perfect.”

Two days later Karen arrived in Edwards’ office with Bo, who was wearing boots and a gauzy cotton dress. “Blake lost his breath,” Karen remembers. “He literally stopped breathing. I thought that if he didn’t take a breath he was gonna die. He was taken and I knew I’d sold her.” Without so much as a screen test, Callan got Bo $35,000 for “10”, options for three more pictures and even equal billing with co-stars Julie Andrews (Edwards’ wife) and George Segal (who later walked off the set and was replaced by Dudley Moore). Callan says she was promised the standard 10 percent cut of Bo’s take. But when she called the Dereks later to discuss the deal, Bo said she had signed a contract with Edwards just the day before—without her. John, says Callan, had until then always encouraged her. “He came on the phone,” she recounts and, after a brief conversation, “said, ‘All previous conversations are canceled.’ Then he hung up.”

Now, says Callan, “We’ll leave it to the court to decide what is fair,” adding that “we won’t starve without the Dereks’ fee.” (She runs her own fashion accessory business, making $20 to $200 hair combs for clients ranging from Cher to Neiman-Marcus.) “It’s a matter of principle,” she sums up. “I just don’t want to be manipulated.”

Derek is livid. Callan claims he called her “a greedy little bitch.” Yet John just says, “I don’t believe in screwing anybody. The money doesn’t mean anything to me. But she saw an empire in Bo and her eyes got big. Suddenly she wanted to be Bo’s manager. Then,” he continues, “she also wanted the deal for “10” T-shirts. Now she can sue for $10 billion and I wouldn’t give her a Kleenex if she were crying. If I feel somebody has wronged me, I’ll spend the rest of my life fighting it.”

The less volatile Bo is herself uncharacteristically harsh. “Karen would not be pursuing this if I hadn’t started making money,” she contends. “Supposedly she was a friend, but she just abused everything. She even wanted Julie Andrews’ part for herself. Business-wise, she didn’t know what she was talking about. I would have been working for Blake the rest of my life.”

Edwards corroborates Karen’s story and says the charge that she was angling for Julie Andrews’ part is “crazy.” Moreover, he adds, “When I asked Bo directly, she said, ‘No, I do not have an agent. Karen is representing me.’ ” Karen reports that other Hollywood types like Lindsay Wagner, Jack Haley Jr. and David Niven Jr. are also lining up in her corner. But when Derek’s second wife, Linda Evans, a friend of both warring couples, tried to act as an intermediary on Karen’s behalf, she was rebuffed.

John may have known it would end up like this. “He’s been through it before,” philosophizes Bo. Born Derek Harris in Hollywood to director Lawson Harris and actress Dolores Johnson, Derek became a romantic lead in movies like All the King’s Men and Prince of Players before leaving acting for photography. Part of the reason may have been artistic disputes on the set. “I never learned to compromise,” he says. “I never learned there was such a word.” His six-year marriage to French starlet Patti Behrs produced two children and a divorce in 1955. When he met the Swiss-born Ursula Andress, he says, “She only spoke a few words of English and I spoke nothing but English.” He nonetheless won her over, at least partly because of his lifelong passion for improving his women. “I didn’t like her hair. I didn’t like her eyebrows. She needed to lose weight. And she was good enough to accommodate me.” They split eight years later in 1965, after Ursula engaged in what John calls “a little hanky-panky on the side.”

Derek was soon remarried, to actress Linda (The Big Valley) Evans. (This time it was her clothes that he didn’t like.)Then, while directing a film on the Greek isle of Mykonos, John became enraptured by a 16-year-old Southern Californian named Mary Cathleen Collins. The daughter of a Moto-cross bike salesman and of Ann-Margret’s hairdresser, she had dropped out of high school for what was to be her film debut. The movie, And Once Upon a Time, has never been released, but Derek had fallen for the girl who was soon to take the stage name of Bo Shane. Linda, who was there, was “unbelievably understanding,” John says, and soon he and Bo were together 24 hours a day. Eventually they took off for Munich after Bo’s then agent threatened to file a morals charge against Derek. “He was really worried that John was going to take over my career,” says Bo, accurately enough, “and [his threat] made that happen.” For six years, though, Bo didn’t really have a career except for a bit role—literally—as a woman whose leg is gnawed off by a killer whale in Orca. (She also co-produced with John an un-released hard-core porno film called Love You.)

Even now the Dereks live in a modest one-bedroom apartment in L.A.’s Marina del Rey, and John is her round-the-clock male chauvinist Pygmalion. “Let’s say Bo gets fat,” Derek explains. “I don’t like her fat, so I tell her. I know I’m hard on her, but Bo knows I’m a zillion percent behind her. There’s no medallion I wave before her eyes. I care about her and I care about the pleasure I get from her. It’s a very selfish thing,” he concedes. “But I love her and she loves me. Most people don’t have this, and that’s why they put it down.”

Andress, expecting a baby boy in May by U.S. actor Harry (Studs Lonigan) Hamlin, 15 years her junior, still speaks warmly of Derek. “He’s not a Svengali, but if he buys a horse he wants the best horse, and if you want to be an actress he wants you to be the best. He’s an incredible, fantastic, rare human being, and I thank God I met him.” All four of John’s wives showed up for his 53rd birthday last August 12 wearing T-shirts with his picture emblazoned on the back. Bo sees nothing unusual about their mutual friendship. “He was always totally honest with them,” she says, “and they love him for that.” Adds John’s daughter, Sean, 26, “It’s like the strong love of a family. Once you have liked somebody, why stop liking them?” Though he is now close to his son, Russell, 29, who lost his legs in an auto accident, Derek and Sean have been estranged ever since she began writing a candid memoir about her family life. “If absence is mistreating,” John concedes, “then I mistreated her.”

Though Derek’s imperious style tends to grate, he, as Bo points out, has often been right. It was John, for example, who convinced Edwards to let Bo wear her attention-getting cornrowed hairstyle throughout “10”, despite the problematical clanking of the beads on the sound track. (Braided extensions were glued onto Bo’s natural shag, which was dyed to match.)

“I’m hard to deal with because I’m very secure in what I think I can do,” declares Derek. “Now that Bo is so commercial, people have to deal with this abrasive, opinionated weirdo.” Edwards reports that Derek’s temper tantrums infuriated at least one hotel manager on location, though he was never (as falsely reported) barred from the set. Derek’s eruptions have been just as frequent on the Bennington, Vt. location of her next film, A Change of Seasons, with Shirley MacLaine and Anthony Hopkins. After several run-ins with Derek, director Noel Black was yanked from the picture. “John has made a lot of people angry,” reports one crew member. “The only reason he’s still on the set is because we don’t want to lose his wife, but some people are wondering if it’s worth all this sh–.”

John isn’t contrite. “We’re doing things our way, and after this picture we’re not going to work for anybody. The only person Bo will have to argue with is me.” But, as Blake Edwards worries, “There’s a grave chance she’ll do things that won’t be right, and her big success explosion will be dampened. I’m afraid it might kill her career.” John is willing to gamble. “I don’t need the money and she doesn’t need the money,” he says. “We want to breed good horses and good dogs. We want to get someplace where we can play.” Besides, Bo says she wants children and will then stop working. “Movies aren’t the most important thing to me,” she insists. “We’re going to buy a ranch, maybe in Australia. I was happy before “10”,” she observes, “and I’m no happier now.”