By Brad Darrach Gioia Diliberto
April 18, 1983 12:00 PM

On Oct. 26, 1982 David Soul called his wife, Patti, at their sprawling ranch house in one of Bel Air’s more fashionable gulches and told her that he would be home for supper around 6 p.m. At 11 p.m., not for the first time that week, she was still waiting—and steaming. For more than a month, in fact, Soul and his wife had been living on the ragged edge. Soul was playing the Humphrey Bogart part in Casablanca, the NBC miniseries that began airing last Sunday, and as shooting wore on he came home each night very late and very disturbed. Since the glory days when he was Hutch, the Nordic half of ABC’s supercop duo Starsky and Hutch, Soul’s career had been skidding steadily. He urgently needed another hit, and with every day on the set he became more convinced that Casablanca would be a $5 million miss. To wind down his tension, he drank a little more when the day’s shooting was done, and roared a little louder about the frustrations when he got home at night.

Patti was not a patient listener. She had concerns of her own—among them, caring for their 9-month-old baby, Brendan, and her sons from a previous marriage, Christopher, 10, and Tyler, 9. When her man came home from work brimming with anger, the last thing she wanted to do was play Mama to him too.

The phone rang at last soon after 11 p.m.—and Patti answered it icily. David said he was sorry, he’d been in a meeting. “I’d been working 18 or 19 hours a day for weeks on end on Casablanca,” he recalls. “I was worn out, finished. Earlier that day I’d told the producer I was going to quit.” He was telling the truth about being in a meeting, but Patti heard something else. “I could tell he’d been drinking,” she says, and when she called him on it, “He started cussing me out in vile, poisonous language. He was violent with his tongue, so I knew he was going to be violent physically. Every time there has been violence with David, there’s been beer or wine on his breath. Now when I so much as smell it, it triggers a fear in me.” On this night, she heeded that fear.

“I think it’s best you don’t come home tonight,” she told him in a tight, cold voice.

“It’s my home,” he answered, “and I’ll come there whenever I damn well want to.”

“In that case you can expect to be met by the police,” she shot back, then hung up on him.

The fury in her husband’s voice was all too familiar to Patti. In that ugly mood, the normally courteous Soul was transformed into a dangerous wife beater. Since their marriage he had assaulted her several times a year, throwing her across the lawn, beating her with his fists, breaking bones in a hand and a finger. “One time,” says Patti, “he sat on my stomach for 20 minutes when I was seven months pregnant, telling me what to say and think.”

Patti dialed the Los Angeles police. Her husband was on the way home in a rage, she said, and she wanted protection. The response seemed casual: She was advised to get out of the house. “I can’t leave the house,” Patti said. “I’ve got a baby here.” The officer repeated that he was sorry, but there was nothing he could do. “You mean you can’t afford me any protection until after I’m hurt?” Patti replied bitterly.

She next called the Bel-Air Patrol, a private force supported by the residents of that wealthy suburb. When Soul drove up to his house a little before midnight, he found two members of the patrol waiting for him, guns drawn. They told him he could not go in. He said he could—and would. “I said, ‘Go ahead—shoot’ ” Soul remembers, “and walked straight through the guns into the house.” The guards followed him into the house and tried to reason with him. He seemed to cool down. “Now if we leave you,” he was asked, “you’re not gonna hit your wife, are you?” Soul took the cue. “Come on, you guys,” he said in a reassuring tone.

When the guards left, Soul turned on his wife: “How dare you bring the police into my own home!” Patti ran to the bedroom in terror and hid under the covers. “David was furious with me. He started shouting and breaking things in the bedroom. Then he threw the covers off me and climbed on top of me, holding me down and cursing at me and spitting in my face. Then he hauled off and slapped me with his open hand. He cut my lip and it began to bleed. I was scared to death because I thought the security men had left, but I said, ‘Get out of here.’ ”

“I went out of control and slapped her,” Soul admits. “But when I did it I got this warning feeling—’You’d better get out of here, David, before you get yourself in trouble.’ ”

As he left, he found two L.A. police officers waiting for him. One asked Patti if her husband had laid a hand on her. She said “Yes.” The officer then asked her if she wanted him to place her husband under arrest. “I stood there for I guess 10 seconds,” Patti remembers. “I thought of all the things that had happened in the two and a half years we had been married. All the good things and all the bad things. And then I said, Yes, I do.’ ”

David stared at Patti in disbelief. He loved his wife passionately and he knew she loved him no less. It was true he had struck her but, he rationalized, it was an open-handed blow causing no serious injury. He felt betrayed and abandoned by the woman he loved. The police then arrested him, read him his rights, and locked him in the back of a police car. At the nearest police station, he was booked on charges of misdemeanor battery. When it came time to hand over his personal possessions, Soul refused to part with his wedding ring. The officer in charge insisted. “You should have thought of that,” he said, “before you hit your wife.” After 90 minutes in custody, Soul posted $500 bail and was released.

The story came out three days later and made ugly headlines all over the U.S. David lay low in a motel near his office. He was sorry for what he had done. “After every episode,” says Patti, “David was plunged into an agony of remorse.” He called her every night, and they spoke for hours about their feelings and their problems. On the third day, against the advice of her family and friends, Patti made a courageous decision. Convinced that David intended to break the vicious cycle of anger and alcohol, she agreed to let him come home.

When the case came to court 10 weeks later, Patti’s friends fully expected that she would request that the charges against her husband be dropped. They were in for a surprise. “I can’t do it,” Patti says she told the judge. “I’m absolutely certain that violence will happen again. I want my marriage to work, and I want my children to grow up in a normal family environment, but that can’t happen as long as my husband has this emotional problem. I want him to get better.” The judge agreed that therapy was needed and, suspending final disposition of the case, he ordered Soul to undergo treatment in a two-year “diversion” program. The actor must stop drinking and abusing his wife, attend alcoholism counseling and psychotherapy sessions, and report to a probation officer every three months. At the end of the period the judge will decide if Soul has completed the program successfully; if so, the complaint will be withdrawn and his record will be cleared. If the court decides that Soul has not complied with the terms of diversion, criminal proceedings will be reinstituted. Soul would face a maximum penalty of six months in the county jail if convicted.

Soul was startled by Patti’s decision to pursue the case in court, but he accepts it without apparent resentment. “I don’t like it,” he says, “but I respect it. At the time I didn’t understand the extent of Patti’s fear, but now I don’t blame her for being afraid. I had been violent with her before. This problem goes back long before Patti. Back as long as I can remember.”

Patti had concluded that her husband’s violence stemmed from inner struggles he could not resolve without professional help. “What I did was very hurtful to David,” she says, “but I believe that in the long run it will prove to be a loving thing.”

The Souls have considerable resources they can bring to their problem. Patti, a lissome, blue-eyed, 31-year-old beauty who was first married at 17, is intelligent, fiercely honest and a born-again Christian with remarkable strengths of spirit. And the man inside her husband’s imposing physique (6’1″, 175 pounds) is a gentle, sincere, sensitive, honorable and loving person—when he isn’t drinking. Friends find him unshakably loyal. Both his ex-wives feel a deep affection for the man, and the children of these marriages, Kristofer, 19, and Jon, 11, light up like Christmas trees in his presence. With his parents, he has been generous. When his father retired, he bought them a handsome home in suburban Los Angeles, and he often sends them on international vacations they could not otherwise afford.

As a performer, Soul, 39, is respected in show business for his talent and professionalism. A leading TV producer recently said of Soul’s acting, “David has all the cardinal virtues: honesty, sensitivity, strength. Jimmy Cagney once said that the secret of acting was to plant your two feet, look the other guy in the eye, and tell him the truth. Nobody does that more effectively than David Soul.”

Yet somewhere deep in the weave of his nature there is a twisted and sinister strand. “I have a history of being unable to control my anger,” he admits. “It began with anger against myself. I broke my hand hitting walls and gashed my wrist when I smashed my fist through glass. But I’ve never had the intent to do bodily harm to another person. I’ve never meant to hurt.”

For many years Soul has been a problem drinker. Alcohol loosens the chains of conscience that bind his anger, and since he is a man of powerful emotions and unusual physical strength, Soul’s anger is a frightening phenomenon. Again and again it has culminated in physical violence, and on almost every occasion it has been directed at the women he has loved. Mim Solberg, his first wife, explains his violence as “a weapon to control the other person—that was what was really important to him.” Karen Carlson, his second wife, when asked about her ex-husband’s violence, refuses to “open that door.” But she admits that her son, Jon, was “badly frightened” by the violence he saw when he was small. The pattern was repeated in Soul’s third marriage. “He didn’t strike me in the beginning of our marriage,” Patti says, “but he pinned me up against a wall and shouted at me, telling me how he wanted me to behave. I began to think of him as a dictator, a Hitler. Seven months later he beat me for the first time, and he beat me all through my pregnancy. I lived in terror you can’t imagine. People ask me why I stayed. I stayed because I loved him and because I was having his child. There is so much good in him, so much love. I knew that if he could deal with his problem he could become the man he was meant to be. A strong, good man who lives by his beliefs.”

The child born David Solberg grew up in the long shadow of ancestral beliefs. His grandfathers on both sides were celebrated evangelists. His parents, Richard and June Solberg, are both charismatic achievers who have made a life’s work of God’s Work. His father, a Lutheran clergyman and history professor, eventually became dean of a Lutheran college in Pennsylvania. His mother gave up a career as a concert singer to become a wife and the mother of five children. There is no doubt about who was the dominant figure in David’s childhood. His father was a quiet, reflective man who was often away from home. His mother was an emotional powerhouse who ran the family. “She had endless energy and enthusiasm,” Soul remembers. “She made us breakfast, packed our lunches, drove us to school, picked us up after school, helped us with our homework, cooked our dinner, did the dishes, read us bedtime stories—everything. And when I would pitch a baseball game, there she’d be, urging me on. ‘You can do it, David. You can do it.’ And the same with all my brothers and sisters. Sometimes we wanted to crawl under the rug.”

Even as a little boy, David made explosive efforts to break out of the tight little box of virtue his parents had put him in. When his younger brother, who later became a gifted physicist, built careful, elaborate houses with his blocks, David would knock them down with a sudden impulsive sweep of his hand. At 19, he married Mim, a beautiful and talented young actress he had fallen madly in love with—only to discover that he had exchanged one kind of confinement for another. When the marriage collapsed, David grabbed his guitar and ran off to New York to try his luck in show business.

His luck proved incredibly good. Wearing a ski mask, he presented himself at an audition as “the Covered Man.” The gimmick got him on the Merv Griffin Show and his career as a singer was launched. On Merv’s advice, he studied acting too, and two years later he had a steady spot in his first TV series, Here Come the Brides. On that show he met Karen, another lovely actress (“David has magnificent taste in women,” says a friend), and married her—only to discover once again that being in a closed relationship made him want to break out violently. He moved on to an “open relationship” with actress Lynne Marta. All through the Starsky and Hutch years David and Lynne lived together but spent time with other people. Fame being a notorious aphrodisiac, David had his pick of Hollywood beauties. But in time he became bored with promiscuity. His conscience told him this was no way to live, and his common sense told him his conscience was right. Then he fell in love with Patti, and the same melancholy round of passion, enclosure, alcohol, violence and regret began again.

Perhaps the most hopeful sign that the cycle may end someday is the determined effort the Souls are making to confront their difficulties. The mutual reassessment is constant and unsparing. Last month in Texas, where David is making a TV pilot called The Yellow Rose, the couple at some moments seemed to be breaking up, at others to be reasserting their union. “We’re walking a razor’s edge,” David confided. “It’s not certain we’ll stay together,” agreed Patti. Yet David is plainly working to defuse his violence through a growing awareness of the emotions that drive him. “What I demanded of women in the past was a kind of slavery,” he concedes. “I’ve been so self-centered, so self-oriented. My woman, my need, my pain, my will. It’s all been my trip. Now Patti has stuck with it and given me the time and the chance to change. And I have changed—changed a lot. I know now that I’ve got to open myself, be vulnerable. I’m learning about surrender. Instead of a demand relationship we’re developing a giving relationship. Because I’m releasing Patti, I have her. It’s a great discovery, one that I made on the verge of losing it all.”