July 24, 1978 12:00 PM

Lesley-Anne Down celebrated her sweet-16th birthday in an unusual way for an English lass—she moved in with her lover. “She had no hangups about sex,” says her loyal dad, who had led the family’s uninhibited dinner table discussions. “She knew as much as anybody by the time she was 12.” Even then Lesley-Anne’s precocious beauty threatened men with cardiac arrest. “But when they’d find out how old I was, they’d just run away,” she giggles. At 16, Lesley-Anne was named “the prettiest teenager in England” by the Daily Mirror. Now, at 24, she’s the deadliest new femme fatale in movies and is leaving critics gasping for analogies (“a young Elizabeth Taylor”) instead of adjectives. “She could be another Vivien Leigh,” asserts Bruce Robinson, the older man (he was 24) she moved in with nine years ago. “Or,” he adds tartly—referring to a career starlet—”she could be another Susan George.”

There’s evidence of both. Down was originally less George than Georgina, the flirtatious Bellamy ward who provided PBS’s Upstairs, Downstairs with some of its most spirited moments. Not that she was about to be typecast in Edwardian propriety. Lesley won her next role, in The Pink Panther Strikes Again, by, among other things, agreeing to a topless scene that Maud Adams had refused. And as a gold-digging voluptuary in this year’s racy Harold Robbins epic, The Betsy, Lesley’s luscious nudity contributed mightily to its “condemned” rating from the U.S. Catholic Conference, which called the movie “supremely trashy.”

The latest thing Lesley-Anne seems to be shedding, though, is her long relationship with her first lover, striving-actor-turned-screenwriter Robinson. They had already survived mutual seven-year itches two years ago when Lesley flipped for a singer she won’t name and Bruce compensated with an extracurricular affair of his own. Then her fling “died through necessity” (i.e., Bruce). So after nine years and only one lapse apiece, she says, “In this business that amounts to faithfulness.” But then suddenly last spring, she moved out of their Wimbledon row house to crash with friends and in hotel rooms. Rumors buzzed of more than a professional interest between Lesley-Anne and Harrison (Star Wars) Ford, her co-lead in the just-wrapped Hanover Street, but she stoutly insists that she and Bruce “decided not to be together while we were working so hard.” By her clocking, their togetherness had been reduced to “half an hour three times a week, which was terribly unfair to both of us.” “She’s got to do it,” agrees Robinson bravely. “I want neither to stop it nor be steamrollered by it. So I’m on the side of the road watching it go by.” Now they’re talking about a summer-end “conference” on their future—but only after Lesley-Anne completes shooting The Great Train Robbery with Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland.

Down’s nonstop schedule may owe to her working-class upbringing in London’s shabby Clapham section. Her father, a caretaker at a military depot, and mother, once an amateur singer-dancer, encouraged her early modeling career. “My childhood ended at 10,” recalls Lesley-Anne, who tried to combine her profession with schooling (when she was 12 her parents were hauled into court on a truancy rap). After a bit part at 15 with Olivia Hussey in All the Right Noises, Down quit both school and modeling to concentrate on acting in “tacky television, tacky touring plans and tacky films. I was always being raped,” she recalls. “The exciting thing about being an actress is that you can live out all your fantasies.”

It took two seasons of Upstairs to give touch of class. “That launched me,” she says. “You can’t kick a gift horse in the mouth.” Yet she complains, “I’m so fed up with roles that have me asking for a cup of tea and holding it in the air.” She likewise scoffs at her current sexpot image: “I don’t think of myself as that. As an actress my ambition is to make a lot of films and be good in them.”

When not working, Lesley-Anne rummages through antique and junk shops collecting illustrated children’s books (she owns more than 200) and fusses for hours on her makeup—though at home with her parents she luxuriates in sloppiness. She dances, though concedes that recent disco sorties “make me feel terribly old-fashioned—I was almost still doing the twist.” When she gets the chance, Lesley-Anne enjoys cooking (especially chili or pasta), but her steadiest diet is filter cigarettes (visiting home, she rolls her own from her dad’s tobacco pack) and champagne, which she’s not above drinking from a paper cup (“I’m not proud”). She intermittently sees her younger sister, Angela, 19, a language student and au pair girl in Paris, who her parents say is the real beauty in the family. As for planting roots, Down says that she and Bruce never considered marrying. She does plan to have a child someday but “not while I’m so busy. It wouldn’t be fair to the child or to me, having worked so hard to get where I am.”

Some of the stresses behind Down’s lovely facade poke through. She’s terrified of the phone and, rather than answer, often buries it under the pillow and lets it ring. If Lesley-Anne’s eagerness to accommodate seems to be turning her personality into Silly Putty, Robinson argues, “She knows that the world she’s dealing with is extremely facile and plastic. And if those are the rules, she’s going to play them better than anybody else.” Lesley-Anne reluctantly concurs. “I don’t know what my own personality is now. All the travel and changes become the reality. The more work that comes, the more you need it to survive, and the more ambitious you get,” she frets. “And the more successful you become, the less a base you have to hang onto.”

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