February 15, 1993 12:00 PM

WHEN SHE WAS A LITTLE GIRL ONE OF Joyce Frankenberg’s favorite outings was a family shrimp-netting expedition to the beaches of Norfolk, on the eastern coast of England. “It was raining, and the sea was very cold, but there were quite a lot of kudos attached to being successful at shrimping,” recalls her sister Annie, 39. “She carried on for hours in water up to her thighs—shrimping and pulling them in a bucket. Her legs were going blue. She was going blue. But once she makes her mind up about what she’s going to do—that’s what she does.”

Throughout her life, Jane Seymour (the name change came when she was 17) has held on to that steel-willed tenacity. But these days she’s reaping more than just crustaceans. Turning 42 this week, the physician’s daughter and onetime poster girl for the romantic life-style has the title role in what may become Saturday night’s Little House for the ’90s: CBS’s family-oriented, set-on-the-frontier Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman, a dark-horse mid-season replacement that, despite a drubbing by critics, has emerged as a resounding Nielsen success. Equally serendipitous, it seems, is Seymour’s happiness on the home front. Despite three failed marriages, the mother of two is settling purposefully into a new arrangement with actor-director James Keach, 45.

“I’ve found a soul mate who loves what I do and what he does. And my kids like him big-time,” says the actress, wriggling her toes in the sunny living room of her two-story, three-bedroom, $3.8 million house in upscale Montecito, Calif. “I’m happier now than ever before.”

Of course. “She is a romantic,” says Seymour’s longtime friend, British casting director Gillian Titchmarsh, “and in her eyes now, James is the man she will want to live with the rest of her life.”

Nor is he going anywhere. “I love her, love her, love her—period,” says James, the brother of actor Stacy Keach. “I got the prize.”

The rewards, it seems, have been a long time coming. Through a 25-year kaleidoscope of more than 40 mostly TV projects (Captains and the Kings; War and Remembrance; East of Eden), Seymour long ago earned the sobriquet Queen of the Miniseries—but she hasn’t always had the critics’ respect. (Even now, says Annie, 20 years after Jane played the sex kitten, Solitaire, in Live and Let Die, “the British press still refers to her as ‘former Bond girl.’ If you consider that she was just out of her teens when she made that film, it seems so stupid.”)

Dr. Quinn may not change that (“Frontier Hooey would be an appropriate alternate title,” wrote the Washington Post’s Tom Shales), but Seymour needn’t worry. Though it was scheduled on a night that often brings quick cancellation, Dr. Quinn has consistently landed in the Top 20 since its debut on New Year’s Day. Handing the series a quick renewal for the fall, CBS Entertainment president Jeff Sagansky gloated that it’s “the one big hit of the new season.”

The triumph in Quinn was doubly unexpected because in recent years Seymour has been readjusting her priorities to put family rather than career first. It was in 1988, while; filming the TV miniseries Onassis: The Richest Man in the World in Madrid (she played Ari’s paramour, opera star Maria Callas), that Seymour says she had her epiphany. Near death from a botched antibiotic injection, “the only things that mattered were my children or the love of my life,” she says solemnly. “I wasn’t thinking about my career, having a new car or a house I might have owned.”

As a result, her priority now is a multigenerational clan that has been extended rather than broken by divorce. Seymour is mom to her children by third husband David Flynn, Katie, 11, and Sean, 7, and is also extremely close to Flynn’s daughter Jennifer, 12, and Keach’s 15-year-old son, Kalen. (A live-in nanny helps care for Katie and Sean.) In addition, Flynn’s mother, Olga, lives in a two-bedroom cottage on Seymour’s 3½-acre properly; Flynn himself is a daily visitor and speaks highly of Keach. “Nothing would make me happier than having Jane and James live happily ever after,” he says. “He fits into this complex situation very easily.”

Complex, indeed—also far-flung and high-tech. Seymour had met Keach briefly at his brother’s house more than a dozen years ago, but it wasn’t until the filming in Arizona of the 1992 USA Network movie Sunstroke—she starred, he directed—that, she says, “we definitely felt something for each other.” (She is now coproducing Praying Mantis, another USA movie with Keach that he will also direct.)

With his four-year marriage to actress Mimi Maynard already shaky (he and Seymour are tiptoeing around questions about marriage until his impending divorce is final). Keach followed Seymour to Austria for her role as Miss Rottenmeier in the Disney Channel’s Heidi. Keach, she says, played soccer with her kids and took them mountain climbing; by the time the group returned to the Stales a month later, they were virtually a family. Still, there has been time for romance, often in the form of what Keach calls “the fax of love,” a five-inch-high stack of electronic love letters between the two that Seymour has saved. “A very literate romance,” says Seymour. Notes Keach: “Pretty mushy, isn’t it?”

Fax appeal aside, what Seymour says most endeared her to Keach was “how wonderful he was with the children.” Seymour’s sister Sally, 40, was an avid witness during a family gathering at St. Catherine’s Court, Seymour’s manor house near Bath, England. (She bought the 1,000-year-old former Benedictine monastery on 14 acres for $600,000 in 1983.) “This Christmas, James was teaching Jane’s two children how to play backgammon while I was watching TV,” Sally says, “and the children only turned to look at it twice.”

Seymour’s family roots were planted 120 miles from St. Catherine’s Court, in the outskirts of London. She was the eldest of three daughters of John Frankenberg, a Polish-born obstetrician who died in 1990, and his Dutch wife, Mieke, a former Red Cross nurse who escaped from a Japanese POW camp in Indonesia before emigrating to England in 1945. The family’s house was so small that when the girls’ beds were pulled out at night, her mother had to crawl over one to kiss the other goodnight.

“I did not come from a wealthy family,” says Seymour. “But they brought me up to be the equivalent of the privileged eldest son.” The future Dr. Quinn was given her first microscope at 7 and by 11 was watching her father perform surgery. She also picked up her dad’s love of opera, studied ballet and switched to acting lessons when her knees gave out at 16.

At 20, the budding actress was briefly married to Michael Attenborough, son of the director Sir Richard. “We were apart so much, working, I barely remember sharing a house with him,” she says. In 1977, Seymour married businessman Geoffrey “Jeep” Planer. With his encouragement, she had made a foray to the U.S. where, the year before, she snared the part of Bostonian Marjorie Chisholm Armagh in her first U.S. miniseries, Captains and the Kings. It won her an Emmy nomination.

Less than a year later her second marriage petered out. “We were good friends, but he wanted a wife who would live in the country and have babies,” says Seymour.

Then, in 1981, just after a six-month run in Amadeus on Broadway, she married Flynn, a business manager by whom she was four months pregnant. At the time, “I felt it was a marriage that would last forever,” she says. But after two children, says Flynn, the couple “grew apart.” Their marriage officially ended last May with a property settlement and Seymour’s agreement to pay her ex $10,000 a month over a two-year period. “It’s the law, and I accept it,” she says philosophically. “It’s no big deal.”

In the two years since her separation from Flynn, Seymour briefly dated singer Peter Cetera and her Quinn costar, actor Joe Lando (he plays mountain man Byron Sully)—but only, she emphasizes, after the pilot was completed and before she met Keach. “I’ve made a million movies, and I haven’t dated that many men,” she says, eager to quash rumors that she has an affinity for her leading men. “I am monogamous.” Keach has directed two episodes of Dr. Quinn, and Seymour claims he and Lando get along splendidly.

Seymour’s grueling 12- to 14-hour days on the Quinn set are broken up by visits from her kids and trail rides in an adjacent state park. One tension easer is her watercolor painting—”my way of coping and dealing with stress,” she says. She hopes that Dr. Quinn’s relatively gritty plots will get her away from her image as a frilly romantic, an image fostered by her 1983 commercials for Le Jardin perfume and her 1983 book, Jane Seymour’s Guide to Romantic Living. “It’s a horrible title,” she says, wincing. “I’ve had to live it down ever since.”

However long-flowing her gowns, Seymour’s personal style is relatively spartan. Off-camera, she wears only mascara, likes her hair long (to just above her waist) because “it’s very low maintenance” and takes no more than “10 minutes getting out of bed and out the door.” A mostly vegetarian diet (“I hate meat and potatoes”) keeps her trim, though at 5’4″ and 117 lbs., she’s “a bit rounder” than usual lately because “James likes me this way.”

What her fans like, apparently, is her latest television incarnation; on the street they’re even beginning to call her Doc, which pleases her no end. “This series shows that women can be productive without being victims or sex objects,” she says. On the other hand, she admits, she is also hoping that “Dr. Quinn won’t always have to be a virgin.” And, viewers, when Joyce Frankenberg sets her mind on something—rest assured, it will happen.



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