By Sue Reilly
February 09, 1981 12:00 PM

For the first time in her already besieged 26 years, Tanya Roberts is on the side of the Angels, but they are Charlie’s, and she has every right to worry whether it can last. A once runaway kid, Tanya dropped out of school at 15, married “some guy” and “hitchhiked all over until his mother had it annulled.” A year later her present husband, Barry Roberts, picked her up on a New York moviehouse line. “Hey, so where were we supposed to meet?” Tanya taunts. “At a Manhattan cocktail party?” Anyone who has heard her Bronx-bred inflections wouldn’t ask, but the question in Hollywood these days is whether even Tanya’s formidable fire (and 36-21-34 figure) can save Charlie’s sinking seraphs. After five seasons, the jiggle may be up for the famous (or as feminists would say, infamous) ABC series.

“We hope to keep the show going for next year, but nothing’s certain,” admits Brett Garwood, the executive coordinator of Spelling-Goldberg Productions. “It has been five years, and, well, people’s interests shift.” Collapse might be a better word. Last year the show dropped out of the Nielsen Top 10 for the first time, winding up in 17th place for the season. The producers thought Shelley couldn’t Hack it, but replacing her Tiffany look with the Macy’s manner of Tanya has scarcely helped. Against Sunday-night competition from CBS’ Archie Bunker’s Place and NBC’s CHiPs, the Angels have fallen as far as 47th. “We’re not blaming Tanya for that. We think she’s a fine actress,” points out Garwood. The late-January switch to a Saturday time slot may help, and Tanya vows to do her part. “This is an incredible break for me,” she says, “and I’m gonna bust my ass.”

Even if that sacrifice isn’t sufficient, Tanya—and the show’s proprietors—won’t be hurting. Roberts’ beginning salary is $12,000 per episode, and her residuals from just one season should be substantial. For producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, cleared by the L.A. district attorney of “Angelgate” charges that they were illegally skimming $30,000 a week, the take eventually should approach $100 million. And that may be conservative. The proceeds are only beginning to come in from France and Italy, where the first 1976-77 shows have just premiered.

If Europe won’t discover the newest—and perhaps sexiest—Angel for several seasons, her co-stars have been quick to welcome her. “Tanya is energetic and loves the show, which is really a lift for the rest of us,” says Cheryl Ladd. “She has a lot of ‘street’ in her, an edge that’s really fun to play off of. She’s so different from the rest of the girls on the show.” Understates Tanya: “I’m not the all-American-girl type. I’m real New York. Once Jackie Smith and I were sitting around on the set and this guy was driving us crazy. I told him to buzz off and Jackie said, ‘You really are tough, aren’t you?’ ” Roberts continues. “I tried to tell her there’s a difference between tough and direct. I say what’s on my mind, but I think I’m sensitive.”

One of the first to get the direct treatment was gossip maven Rona Barrett. Shortly after selecting her, Spelling-Goldberg sent a still-disbelieving Tanya off for her first interview. “Rona Barrett, for God’s sake,” squeals Tanya, who speaks fluent italic. “Can you believe it? She asks me all those questions—Do I think it will last? I say, of course—I’m going to bust my chops. She asks me about the degradation of having to wear a bikini on the show, and I tell her that I’m really into women’s liberation but I wear a bikini on the beach, why not on the show?” Tanya hasn’t changed her costuming or convictions since. “People talk about how silly the scripts are, how formula,” she acknowledges. “Well, let me tell you, there are only eight basic plots in life and this show covers them all.” As for what is barely covered, “It may seem to jiggle more than other shows, because there are three of us and three times as much jiggle.

“Oh, and I’d better say something about jealousy and all that crap on the set,” she adds breathlessly. “I got a fabulous bouquet of roses from Jackie the day I was hired, and Cheryl was on the phone the same day. Those girls are fabulous. I love David Doyle, too. He’s a pretty standard guy,” she notes of the delightful gent who plays Bosley. “On the set in Hawaii one day, he’s looking beautiful in a grass skirt and before I know it he’s mooning us. David Doyle? You know what I mean?” Ladd confirms the loony lunar incident. “We all screamed in three-part harmony. That’s when we knew Tanya was going to fit in.”

When she was young, though, it seldom seemed she would fit in anywhere. “I was a wild, rebellious kid,” says Roberts of her youth as Tanya Leigh, the younger of two daughters of a pen salesman. “Once, when I was about 8, I stole all my father’s sample pens and sold them,” she relates. “He got real angry. He always liked my older sister, Barbara, better anyway. She was pretty and had a great big chest and beautiful green eyes,” says Tanya. “I was the ugly duckling until I reached puberty.” The rivalry continued until Barbara moved to the West Coast three years ago, having married, of all people, drug guru Timothy Leary. “I don’t like to talk about their marriage,” says Tanya. “I don’t think people in the Midwest would understand.”

Her own seven-year union with scriptwriter Barry Roberts, 31, has been solid since the beginning. “I told Barry he was going to be my best friend for life, and he is,” says Tanya, who proposed to him in a subway station a few months after their meeting. Recalls Tanya fondly, “He said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ” At the time, she was teaching dance at Arthur Murray’s (“I can tango, mambo, do the merengue, yes I can!”), while Barry, a grad student in psychology, worked at a methadone clinic. He soon dropped his studies to toil as a writer (he recently sold two scripts to CBS), while Tanya “went from dancing to modeling to acting.” She helped pay the rent with commercials for Ultra Brite and Clairol—and her dues in off-off-Broadway plays. Then, she notes, “I told Barry, ‘Listen, baby, I’m going to be a star if it kills me, and I’m taking you with me.’ He didn’t laugh—lucky for him.”

Hollywood didn’t laugh either. Mostly, when the couple moved there in 1977, it yawned. “I tried out for a goddam part in every major movie for three years,” grumbles Tanya, who washed up in TV pilots like Pleasure Cove and Zuma Beach. “And, no, I don’t want to say what major roles I tried out for,” she adds. “Why should I give those bastards the satisfaction?” In 1978 she was signed on, then dropped from, CBS’ Flying High, and the following year she co-starred with Michelle Phillips in a two-hour Vega$ special. “It was pretty good,” figures Roberts, “except they had Michelle and me dressed up in cop uniforms. Hiding the assets, you know? It didn’t go anywhere.” Then she was decimated—trying out for, but losing, the Bo Derek part in “10.” “When I heard the Charlie’s Angels role was open,” Tanya says, “I kept thinking, ‘I want it. I deserve it. It’s mine.’ ” Beating out Jayne Kennedy, Susie Coelho and what she skeptically calls “the alleged 2,000 Angel candidates” ended her three years of unconsummated flirtations with success.

But has the suddenly successful Roberts also acquired the “Angel jinx” that has claimed the marriages of Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd, while stunting the careers of Fawcett, Jackson and Hack? Tanya and Barry aren’t worried, even though his income now seems minuscule compared to hers. “It doesn’t matter who’s hot and who’s not,” philosophizes Barry. “She’s still the same person at home. Growing up, Tanya never thought of herself as beautiful. So she took the time to develop a personality.”

Happy at last as an Angel, Roberts still feels miscast as an Angeleno. “Jesus, L.A. drives you crazy,” she sputters. “I’m used to weather and walking and people who say what they mean.” She and Barry still live near UCLA in a nondescript two-bedroom apartment she loves “because it has wood floors. My God, every other apartment in Los Angeles is done up with orange or green carpets. Jesus. And I hate driving,” she adds. “If I ever have enough money, I’m going to hire a guy to chauffeur me around in my Volkswagen.”

She’s already learning the other joys of affluence. While on location in Hawaii, “Barry and I went off to Kauai for a couple of days,” Roberts reports. “We got in this helicopter and put on headphones with Strauss blaring away and they put us down on this secluded beach at the foot of a huge waterfall, with two rubber rafts and two bottles of champagne. It was heaven.” Her goals now are equally romantic and, this season at least, just as attainable. Materially, “I guess what I really want is to get very rich and be able to afford an acre in Brentwood where I can have a couple of horses.” Professionally, “I just want people to see me on television and know that I’m going for it.” Personally, and most importantly, “I’d like to have a couple of boys, probably in a few years,” offers Tanya, the most down-to-earth Angel of all, “and I would like to live with Barry forever.”