Now that the Unwed Game is as conventional as gin rummy among Hollywood couples, the kinky thing to do these days is get married. “The time is coming,” fears Michael Douglas, Kirk’s son and Karl Maiden’s greenhorn sidekick on ABC’s gumshoe drama The Streets of San Francisco, “We’re going to be pushed into it,” allows Brenda Vaccaro, Michael’s lady for five years, a buoyant actress of stage (Broadway’s Cactus Flower), screen (Midnight Cowboy) and TV specials.
Not that Michael and Brenda are shopping for monogrammed towels yet, but just the idea that they’re contemplating the manacles of marriage is unlikely enough. They’re separated by both a mini-generation gap—he’s 28, she’s 34—and a personality gap. Michael is a tight-tailed New Englander, crisp as a Mclntosh apple. Brenda is a Rabelaisian from Brooklyn, ripe as a pomegranate with a throaty, 3 a.m. voice straight off the E train. She had been pushed into marriage once before (to director Martin Fried) and gave up after three years. Not so long ago Brenda observed, “When you’re married, you try harder. Who needs that kind of pressure?”
But Brenda’s Sicilian-born mom has lately made a tearful confession to Michael that “I want to see my daughter marry before I die.” And Brenda says that Michael’s mother, English-born actress Diana Douglas, is hardly less subtle: “She’s knitting a blanket for a baby we don’t have.”
If all this sounds like daytime TV, it’s not inappropriate because the couple met while acting in Summertree, a 1971 film produced by Michael’s dad which proved that even an antiwar movie can come off like soap opera. “It was a low-budget film, and Michael and I were sharing a trailer,” Brenda recalls. “I would put up a sheet and change behind it.” One change led to another, and soon Michael and Brenda were sharing a stateroom on the Queen Elizabeth II. “We fought like cats and dogs,” Brenda says. “Michael kept saying that if it hadn’t been for the trailer first, an then if we hadn’t been in Europe 3,000 miles away from home, we never would have made it.”
Of course, it never looked as if Michael would make it into show biz either. His parents divorced when he was 6, and his mother raised him in Connecticut and at high-toned schools like Choate. His father was relieved that he seemed headed for law at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and told Michael he was “terrible” in his student acting debut in As You Like It. But in a later production Kirk reversed himself, declaring the kid “very good,” and Michael
went on into a few off-Broadway plays and ephemeral movies before his ABC
series came along.
Brenda is yin to Michael’s yang. Her father, a lawyer, moved the family from Brooklyn to Dallas and opened the Big D’s first gourmet restaurant, Mario’s. Brenda, in the only miscasting of her life, was packed off to finishing school—and she was promptly tossed out. She waited on tables in a New York coffeehouse and modeled bathing suits for Maidenform before becoming second banana to Lauren Bacall in Cactus Flower. After a score of plays and movies, Brenda is still on the cusp of stardom, seemingly condemned to give her best performances in turkeys. She was nominated for Tonys—and lost—three times but did win an Emmy this spring in CBS’s blandly feminist comedy special, The Shape of Things. She has done other one-shots (including playing Ethel Rosenberg in ABC’s The Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) but considers a series anathema.
Michael himself is leary about the weekly regimen—both professionally and personally. What he really seeks is to direct and produce movies—a sensible solution for someone who does not want to be remembered as Son of Spartacus. Most of Michael’s moonlight hours the past few years have been spent in co-producing a film version of Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, starring Jack Nicholson. “The exciting thing about making films today is that everything is up lor grabs,” he explains. “And you had better grab.”
The other problem about TV series for Douglas is the crimp in his relationship with Vaccaro. During the eight-month shooting season, Michael is on San Francisco location up to 18 hours a day, six days a week, and Brenda is on an air-shuttle yo-yo from Los Angeles every weekend between her commitments (the latest of which was the adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough, also featuring, ironically, Kirk Douglas). This summer, with his crescendoing clout on Streets, Michael finagled an extra week together with Brenda by casting her in the series as a guest star. She played a gun-toting mob hit-woman, in an episode which will air September 19th.
The permanent (though still rented, not owned) Douglas-Vaccaro home is a glittering Los Angeles aerie atop Benedict Canyon, which they share with a Belgian sheepdog, a Persian cat and now and then with even her ex-boyfriend. What will drive them to marriage is the children Michael’s mother is speculatively knitting for. Kids out of wedlock are unthinkable to both. “I’m not condemning those people who do it,” says Michael. “But it seems simpler ail the way around to get married.” Brenda concurs but would never give up her profession completely. “As Simone de Beauvoir said,” says Vaccaro, with uncommon seriousness, ” ‘a woman’s freedom always begins with her own money.’ ”