October 06, 1986 12:00 PM

Even the jaded staff of the celebrity-saturated Bel-Air Hotel stops dead for this entrance. Sauntering arm-in-arm into the nearly deserted, walnut-paneled hotel bar on this late Friday afternoon are two top candidates for a Hollywood Mount Rushmore: Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Wagner. Debonair in a blue blazer, Wagner places a protective palm on the small of Taylor’s back and guides her to a rear table where this reporter waits to begin the pair’s first-ever joint interview. Their reason for consenting now is a labor of mutual love.

Though R.J., as his friends call him (his name is Robert John), and Liz, as the world calls her (intimates always say Elizabeth), boast of a friendship spanning four decades, they had never worked together until this year. In the $3.2 million TV movie, There Must Be a Pony, co-produced by Wagner’s R.J. Productions and airing this Sunday on ABC, Taylor plays a faded screen star trying for a comeback with the help of a new love, played by Wagner. The plot has some striking real-life parallels. Taylor (whose last feature film was The Mirror Crack’d in 1980) has done other, mostly mediocre TV work (Hotel, North and South, Malice in Wonderland). But Pony is her juiciest role in years, and with her clamorously publicized problems with weight, drugs and alcohol plainly behind her, she seems in superb shape to run with it. The bartender can’t help gaping, as Taylor, glamorous and size 6-slim in a sky-blue Chanel suit, glides by.

At the table, Wagner immediately attends to Taylor’s comfort. The large upholstered banquette won’t do for La Liz. “My back,” she explains, referring apologetically to a chronic ailment she’s suffered since she learned to jump horses for National Velvet in 1944. She seats herself regally in a straight chair, while Wagner scans the bar for a pillow, which he quickly finds and gently tucks behind her. “He’s such a gentleman,” says Taylor, “so considerate.” Never mind snitching to George Hamilton, Liz’s escort of the moment, or to Jill St. John, the actress-cookbook writer with whom Wagner shares his five-bedroom home on two of West Los Angeles’ priciest acres. Liz and R.J. are buddies, not bedmates, and that, both insist, has always been the case. Corroboration comes from an unlikely source: The Last Star, Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized 1981 biography of Taylor, doesn’t even grant Wagner a place in the copious index.

These days the subject of Kelley—whose just-published unauthorized biography of Frank Sinatra does indeed feature Taylor in the index—draws instant fire. Liz volleys with a defensive look, then readies both barrels. “Turn that mother off for a minute,” says Liz, pointing to the reporter’s tape recorder and launching into an off-the-record diatribe about the author’s ethics or lack of same.

Leaning over to light Liz’s cigarette (her character in the movie was supposed to be a smoker but Taylor refused to use cigarettes onscreen), Wagner deftly changes the subject. “I’ve been in the editing room for three days watching her performance,” he says. “I think this is her best part since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [for which she won her second Oscar in 1967]. It really is her picture.”

“Awww, say something nice for God’s sake,” she says teasingly. Then, more seriously, she adds: “We understand each other,” and reaches over to touch Wagner’s hand, flashing the Krupp diamond that Richard Burton gave her.

Now it’s Wagner who won’t be serious: “I also fit into all her clothes.”

“Next he’ll want my jewelry,” she retorts.

They find this exchange immensely funny, and their amusement has attracted some attention in the bar; patrons are stopping to stare. Liz and R.J., however, are oblivious to their surroundings, and eventually the two are chatting about things that have nothing to do with a TV movie or their careers, but about what they’ve shared in the nearly 40 years of friendship, the best times and the worst.

“We were teenagers when we met,” says Liz, drinking tea and choosing a walnut cookie. Pain from recent root canal work, which has left her cheeks faintly bluish, causes her to nibble nimbly (a week later she will be hospitalized for minor surgery due to a tooth infection). “Of course I was younger than R.J.,” says the 54-year-old Liz. “Much younger.” Wagner, 56, just smiles.

“It was in Roddy McDowall’s backyard,” R.J. remembers. “My God, really?” says Liz, pausing to remember. McDowall was a child actor whose mother prepared the food served during his Sunday pool parties. Other young actors in the group included Ann Blyth, Ricardo Montalban, Jane Powell and Polly Bergen. Wagner and Taylor were then an unlikely pair. He was lanky, 17 and, unlike the other kids, wasn’t an actor at the time; he admits having felt intimidated by “seeing my friends onscreen.” Wagner’s father, who moved the family from Detroit to L.A. when R.J. was 7, made his money selling steel. Elizabeth’s father had been a successful art dealer in London, and at 15, she was already an MGM contract player with eight films to her credit. Wagner eventually made his show business contacts at various private schools and as a caddy at the Bel Air country club for the likes of Cary Grant and Clark Gable; Gable, in fact, had helped arrange Wagner’s first screen test, which led to his debut in The Happy Years with Dean Stockwell in 1950. But it was Liz, Roddy and the pool gang who first encouraged the handsome caddy to try acting. “Elizabeth befriended me,” says R.J. “The lady is not only courageous, generous and talented, but she’s been a good friend in every way.”

“I’ll drink to that,” says Taylor, lifting her cup of tea. “Do you remember the house we rented for weekends on Long Island? East Hampton or somewhere? That was fun.”

Taylor is skipping ahead a decade or so. In the years previous, she had become a reigning screen queen with three Oscar nominations, had divorced Nicky Hilton and Michael Wilding (by whom she had two sons), had been widowed by Mike Todd and had just married Eddie Fisher. Wagner, as the star of Prince Valiant, had become a bobby-sox movie idol; in 1957, he had wed Natalie Wood (he was 27, she was 19).

“Nat and I were great friends,” says Liz, who shared with Wood the traumas of being a child star. “The four of us would spend weekends together. It was R.J. and Natalie and”—with a sniff of distaste she avoids the mention of his name—”the gentleman I was married to at the time.” Sadly, few pictures were taken. “When we were all together we avoided cameras,” Liz says. “When you are on vacation you don’t like the look of a camera.” She recalls a trip East the two couples made on the Super Chief from L.A. in 1960: “The train ride was so luxurious, a great way to get away from things.”

Caught up in her reminiscence, Liz prods R.J. to join in: “I was going to New York to do Butterfield 8 [for which Liz would win her first Oscar], and Natalie was there to do Splendor in the Grass. Remember?” He could hardly forget: It was one of the most painful periods of his life. During the making of Splendor, Natalie fell in love with her co-star, Warren Beatty. In 1962 Wood and Wagner divorced; he started analysis. “My life went into a tailspin,” said Wagner, whose career suffered a crisis as well. Fighting to make the difficult transition from juvenile to leading man, he turned down a picture at Fox with Elvis Presley. “Fox hit me with the classic line: ‘You’ll never work again.’ ”

He didn’t for a while, at least not in the U.S. He moved to London, then Rome. “Elizabeth was there doing a picture,” says R.J. The picture was Cleopatra, which would end her marriage to Fisher and begin her Richard Burton period. “The electricity that this one generated!” says Wagner, pointing at Liz. “She would walk into some damned club in Rome and people would go crazy.”

The next decade played like one of those movie montages that tell the story through a welter of spinning headlines: Liz divorces Burton and then remarries him in 1975, divorces him again and marries John Warner in 1976. Wagner marries actress Marion Marshall in 1963; they have a daughter Kate, now 22. Wagner and Marshall divorce and, in 1972, Wagner reweds Wood, who previously had married and divorced film producer Richard Gregson with whom she had a daughter, Natasha, now 16.

Wagner and Taylor saw each other on the run during these years—at parties, weddings and to celebrate the birth of R.J. and Natalie’s daughter, Courtney, in 1974. But their friendship never waned. “We don’t have to see each other for months at a time,” says Liz. “But when we do see each other, it is mid-thought, mid-sentence, a continuation.” Looking suddenly subdued, R.J. stares at Liz with great affection. “I have been with Elizabeth through the high points and low points,” he says, “and she has been with me.”

R.J. offered special support when Taylor spent several weeks at the Betty Ford clinic in 1983 to fight overindulgence with alcohol and prescription drugs. Earlier, when she appeared triumphantly on Broadway in The Little Foxes in 1981, R.J. and Natalie were thereto cheer. Then on Nov. 29, 1981, when the news came that Natalie had drowned in a boating accident, Taylor was one of the first to appear at the Wagner house. “She was there for me,” says Wagner simply.

Now, with There Must Be a Pony, Wagner and Taylor are there for each other in another way. R.J. needed Liz to help get the TV movie financed; she needed him to ensure that the film would be done right. Previously, Liz had resisted the role of the faded bombshell (in fact she had played a similar part in The Mirror Crack’d after Natalie turned it down). “I must say with all candor that I am not made for television,” says Liz, eyeing Wagner warily. “It’s hard. I don’t know how people who do these series keep up. I really don’t.”

But Wagner, a veteran of four series (It Takes a Thief, Switch, Hart to Hart, Lime Street), convinced her by promising not to soften the story, which is based on James Kirkwood’s 1960 novel. Playing a woman who comes back from a breakdown doesn’t bother Liz. “All of us actresses are a little crazy,” she says. Not-so-crazy Liz gets top billing and a share in the profits, though Wagner, as executive producer, stands to do even better when the film is released in Europe as a feature.

“She made me crazy on the set,” says R.J. “She never forgets a line. There I am stumbling, trying to keep up.”

“Oh, sure,” says Liz.

“I haven’t been a legend as long as she has,” R.J. deadpans. “I hate that word legend,” Liz moans. “It sounds like we should be dead. We’re both very much alive.”

“She was going all the time,” says Wagner. “But you liked that aspect of it, didn’t you?”

“Oh, yes. I’d much rather work than sit around. You get on a roll.”

A much-anticipated moment for both was their first love scene; the two old friends would finally have their first screen kiss. For Taylor, the excitement wasn’t in the kiss itself but in the communication, as it always is. “It happens between the eyes,” she says, “like an umbilical cord. I was receiving so much from him. I hope they caught it on camera.”

“Hell,” says R.J., “when you look in her eyes, if you can’t get it, they might as well carry you out.” With a big smile, he adds, “It was definitely worth the wait.”

They may not wait so long for an encore. Though both have full, independent lives—she with her fund-raising work for AIDS research (she was honored last week in L.A. with a Commitment to Life award), he with future TV projects (the next one with Audrey Hepburn) as well as his multi-million dollar Robert Wagner formal wear company—Taylor hints that another joint TV venture is “brewing.” Both would plainly love nothing more. Watching as Taylor accepts a rose from a hotel flower shop employee in shorts and apron who couldn’t resist rushing in to bestow a favor on his favorite star, Wagner doesn’t try to hide his pride at the way Taylor has resurrected her life and her career. “There isn’t a leading man in the world who wouldn’t want to work with her,” he says. “I’m very glad I had the chance.”

Before climbing into R.J.’s BMW for the ride back to her two-story home in Bel Air, Taylor grabs Wagner’s arm. “Do you realize,” she asks, those violet eyes flashing, “that together we’ve got 80 years in this business?” R.J. nods. “We’ve been through the same kind of experiences, disillusionments, joys and tragedies,” she says. “That’s why we’ve lasted so long.”

Yes, he says, they will always be friends. “Unless,” says Liz, never one to embrace sentiment without a wink, “the film is bad and he never talks to me again.”

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