May 14, 1979 12:00 PM

Whatever audiences make of Last Embrace, the baffling new Hitchcockian thriller is, thankfully, a second chance—at 35—for Janet Margolin. Back in 1962 Margolin achieved overnight fame as the unforgettably poignant heroine of David and Lisa, the classic study of emotionally disturbed teenagers redeemed by love. The only problem with Margolin’s much-lauded performance as the troubled Lisa was that she continued playing a similar role offscreen for the next decade.

“It’s too bad that someone already said ‘too much too soon,’ because that’s what happened to me,” admits Margolin, who was less than a year out of high school and fresh off a Tony nomination when cast for David and Lisa. “I hadn’t been psychotic, but I was a high-strung, very sensitive, isolated young girl. I was afraid they’d find out what a fake I was.”

Her insecurity wasn’t helped by her being offered a post-Lisa string of “crazy, crippled-girl” roles that she rejected in favor of inconsequential ’60s films like Bus Riley’s Back in Town with Ann-Margret, Nevada Smith with McQueen and Morituri with Brando. “I was miserable,” says Janet. “I was only 22, out of my league and I didn’t want to be an actress—or alive, basically. I felt like a victim, but I just was my own worst enemy.”

She went into intensive psychoanalysis for three years and tried to escape at 25 into marriage to music promoter Jerry Brandt. “I was afraid to leave home,” says Janet. “I married to bury myself.” The union lasted only two years. In the end it was mundane academic success that began her turnaround. To allay Margolin’s fears that she was “dumb,” her therapist suggested five years ago that she attend UCLA. She won A’s for her liberal arts studies and that “broke the dam,” says Janet. “Once I knew I could be a regular person, then it was okay to be an actor.”

The third of four daughters born to a well-to-do CPA and a homemaker, Margolin had grown up in New York City ambivalent about her future profession. “My father—a gourmet, concertgoer, operagoer, art collector—was my chief critic. I love him, but it was hard to win approval from him. I picked up that any truck driver or pretty person could be an actor, but intelligent people did other things.” While attending Manhattan’s private Walden School she competed with her “pretty” older twin sisters (“I’d steal their clothes”) and envied the attention lavished on her younger sibling after she contracted nephrosis. “The role model that became most attractive to me was the ‘sick child,’ the non-functioner, the troublemaker.” After graduation from the High School of Performing Arts (and her Tony-nominated Broadway bow in 1961’s Daughter of Silence with Rip Torn), that attitude was perfect for David and Lisa.

“I burned a lot of bridges,” Janet frets. “I heard I had a reputation as a ball-breaker. I wonder if there are even now men walking around wounded and in pain after encounters with me. I can be a bitch when I get scared.” Fortunately, in 1977 her friend Jennifer Salt, daughter of screenwriter Waldo (Coming Home) Salt, got the Eunice Tate role in ABC’s Soap. One day Janet accompanied her to the set. “Ted Wass [Soap’s Danny Dallas] kept saying, ‘Doesn’t your friend want to go out with me?’ ” remembers Salt. “I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. You’re too young.’ ” Wass is 26, but for the past two years he and Janet have shared a tiny, Mexican-style pad in the Hollywood Hills. Clearly, Wass is a buttress to Janet’s new stability. She won a two-minute bit as Woody Allen’s Valium-popping second wife in 1977’s Annie Hall. (She had been Woody’s wife in 1969’s Take the Money and Run.) But before the Last Embrace audition she got typically weepy and panicky. To help her conquer her fears, “Ted said, ‘I’m going to go out and I want you to turn off all the lights in the house and scare yourself,’ ” relates Janet. “It was wonderful advice.”

Indeed, she’s now secure enough to admit that the nude bathtub scene in Last Embrace is her favorite because “No one has ever let me play a real sexy person before.” Her opinion of the film itself? “The movie that I would have liked to see is not on the screen,” she declares. “For the first time in my life I think maybe I should learn how to be a director.” That’s a bold idea for someone whose self-described “battle with the demons” lasted so painfully long, but Lisa is not her alter ego anymore. “The new Janet is a jovial toughie,” laughs Margolin. “It helps to get older and develop a sense of humor. I’ve learned you can bury yourself in a character, not in life.”

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