‘I’m really the opposite of Roper,’ insists the thrice-married Fell.
If three’s company, five’s a crowd. So, given the Hamburger Helper theory of TV programming—take one hit, add filler and serve in two prime-time slots—it was inevitable that ABC would attempt to divide and conquer. Surprisingly, John Ritter was not selected to bear off Three’s Company viewers by sheer force of character. Nor was Suzanne Somers or Joyce DeWitt spun away in a jouncier vehicle. Rather, it was sad sack Norman Fell, the threesome’s TV landlord, Stanley Roper, whose sexual indifference to his wife, Helen (Audra Lindley), is a one-joke shtik. (Stanley: “I’m your husband and I have certain rights.” Helen: “You haven’t used them in weeks.”)
The British prototype of Three’s Company, titled A Man About the House, successfully sired George and Mildred. So, sure enough, when The Ropers kicked off a six-week trial run this March, it outrated the Ritter-Somers original and became the second-highest-drawing series debut in TV history (the first was Mayberry R.F.D. in 1968). Two weeks ago ABC made it official, announcing that next fall The Ropers would be a part of the regular prime-time lineup (its slot: Saturday at 8 p.m. EST).
“I’ve been up and down so many times that even now I can’t accept this as being reality,” says Fell, 55, one of Hollywood’s hardest-working and genuinely best-liked actors. “I’m happy for his success,” says Somers, meaning it. “I love him—it’s like a second marriage,” agrees Lindley, whose seven-year marriage to actor James Whitmore ended in divorce the day before The Ropers premiered. “Norman is heaven. Witty, funny—yet the moment he puts on that Stanley Roper sweater he ages 10 years and becomes a totally different person.”
Come fall, the Stanley and Helen characters will be replaced on Company (though the producers have not determined how)—and Norman feels at least passing regret. “You spend 10 hours a day with people and you really become like a family,” he says, admitting it sounds trite. “I’ll miss that fun.” “And we’ll miss him,” says Ritter, though he and wife Nancy will continue to see the Fells socially. More tangible, everyone in the cast will miss the “double-double” chocolate cakes Norman’s 35-year-old wife, Karen, has baked for the wrap party every Friday night since the beginning. (Karen will be back at it for the Ropers tapings.)
She and Fell met six years ago when he was suffering emotionally and financially from the breakup of his second marriage (to production executive Diane Weiss). NBC had just canceled his garment-district sitcom, Needles and Pins, leaving Fell in a $175-a-month furnished apartment “sitting on the couch wondering which frozen dinner I should take out.” A doctor friend called with a supper offer, and Fell was so grateful he came to the office. The nurse caught his eye, and he called for a date two weeks later. “We went out and we’ve been together ever since—she was impressed because I took her to Beverly Hills and showed her my favorite tree,” Fell remembers. Two years later he gave her a ring under that same oak. “She’s turned my whole life around. I’ve been happier, healthier and certainly more successful since I met her,” he says. “Somehow she made it safe for me to be happy.”
Since then Karen herself has also branched out, moving from nursing into gerontology. “She likes old people. I think it’s part of my appeal for her,” cracks Norman. In any case, she took courses at UCLA and USC and now works as a psychological counselor in Westwood. As for dealing with his Roper TV image, Fell explains, “If people see Karen and me out they’ll ask if I’m really like Stanley. And she’ll say, ‘No, he’s an animal!'” No less a friend of theirs than Burt Reynolds has confirmed: “I’d get married tomorrow if I knew my marriage would be as successful as theirs.”
Fell is a veteran at being undervalued. With 400 TV roles to his credit, as well as a score of movies, he’d won next to nothing professionally. “With my kind of negative thinking, you get nominated—that’s terrific—but you never win.” So he was shocked and thrilled to cart off a Golden Globe this year for Three’s Company. A month after the ceremony, prankster Reynolds joshed Fell by plagiarizing part of his acceptance speech on the People’s Choice Awards. After that show, Fell dropped Reynolds off at his Learjet, then went home—and mused to himself: “‘Here I am, this big-shot Hollywood character, with Burt Reynolds and the awards and all that stuff, sitting at the counter eating a bowl of oatmeal at 11 o’clock.’ Then, of course, I walked the dog in my tuxedo.”
Norman grew up along the colonial Philadelphia waterfront, the site of the present-day Society Hill, with a more pungent cuisine. The family lived upstairs over Fell’s Dairy Restaurant, a kosher eatery founded by his Austrian immigrant grandfather and carried on by his dad. “As a child I remember wonderful smells coming up to my room,” Norman reports. A sixth-grade Greek pageant debut in “a silly little tunic” gave him a taste of showbiz, but, he says, “All my friends were going to become dentists, teachers, lawyers or businessmen.” Fell’s interim future was decided for him when he was dispatched to the South Pacific as an aerial gunner in World War II. He came home to work as a civil service statistician, which he felt “was like a living death—I was making no statement to the world, and it tortured me.” So he got a B.A. at Temple University, concentrating on drama courses, and then headed for New York.
“I went through the whole starvation route,” he recalls. One day, while walking along Broadway, he recognized Marlon Brando ducking into a deli. Fell invited himself to his table. “I could see his eyes say, ‘What kind of a nut is this?'” But Marlon magnanimously read Fell’s college notices, told him “Nobody cares about this stuff,” and advised him to contact acting coach Stella Adler. From the nearest pay phone, he did. “Marlon told me to call you,” announced Fell. “Well, if he thinks you’re okay, then I’ll accept you,” said Adler.
Off-Broadway led to summer stock, and from there Norman lucked into a friendship with writer Paddy Chayefsky during the so-called golden age of live television. Fell appeared in dramas like the TV original of 12 Angry Men and acted with everyone from Judy Holliday to Edward G. Robinson and Walter Matthau. By then he had given up both his moonlighting job in a post office and, less happily, his first marriage to a college sweetheart.
When live TV died, Fell headed for Hollywood to start over in movies. Typed as “a funny Erich von Stroheim,” he accrued credits like The Graduate, Pork Chop Hill, Inherit the Wind, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and PT 109. Fell particularly remembers three months in Las Vegas shooting one of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack movies, Ocean’s 11. “I’d run back into my room at the Sands and my face hurt from smiling all day long. ‘Oh, Frank! Oh, Sammy! Oh, Dean!'” he kids. (Norman does admire Sinatra: “I never heard him lie about anything or con anybody. He would have been a leader no matter what business he went into.”) Fell then moved into TV series like The Untouchables and Dan August, where he and Reynolds became friends. Then, in a guest shot on Lee Grant’s late, lamented Fay, he first sparked with Lindley—an irresistible pairing that led to their casting on Three’s Company.
Norman recently moved into his and Karen’s five-bedroom fantasy house in Pacific Palisades with her daughter Lisa, 15, and son Darren, 14. His two girls from his first marriage, Tracy, 17, and Mara, 14, visit weekends and call Karen with their troubles. “I don’t like flamboyance,” Fell professes. “I would never own a Rolls-Royce.” He and Karen drive suitably chic old-model Porsches. “I like understating elegance,” he continues. “I like a raincoat with a mink lining. Nobody sees the lining, but Karen knows it’s there.” Actually, he hasn’t bought such a coat for Karen yet, but they do make the rounds of the city’s gourmet restaurants and regularly attend the L.A. Philharmonic.
Though he continues to explore dramatic roles—he was nominated for an Emmy in Rich Man, Poor Man and recently played Alex Haley’s cagey literary agent in Roots II—Fell staunchly defends the sitcom genre that has made him a star in midlife. “Critics can call it a piece of fluff, not deep, not probing, not socially worthwhile,” he says. “But it’s what the public feels that’s important. We’re out to make people laugh, and I think The Ropers is as close as we’ve gotten to French farce in America.” Roll over, Molière.