Just plain money, it seems, is no longer enough to pacify TV series superstars. The deals they’re demanding now include sweeteners like script approval, guaranteed movie roles and prime-time variety specials, not to mention royalties on T-shirts and look-alike dolls. But actor Peter Strauss may have broken fresh contractual ground when he signed up for ABC’s Rich Man, Poor Man and demanded an extra $9.49 in his first paycheck. “I wanted Universal to send me a dozen roses the first day of shooting,” he explains, “and I knew they’d forget otherwise.”
Strauss could have asked for the Rose Bowl and probably gotten it. The awesome hold of Rich Man, Poor Man on the national psyche, as much as anything, made 1976 the year ABC forgot Howard Cosell. Of the three relatively unknown actors who starred in RM, PM‘s soapy saga—Susan Blakely, Nick Nolte and Strauss—only Strauss survived “in a terrific bargaining position” to carry on this fall. (Nolte “died” last season and Blakely was killed off in the first episode this year.) “I’ve got a better deal than Lindsay Wagner’s,” Strauss gloats over his bionic $500,000-plus contract.
All this comes to a 29-year-old who is new enough to success to credit it with little more than getting “a better table at the Palm Restaurant.” Strauss’s duplex apartment in Brentwood is, in fact, a kind of museum to his days as a vagabond TV actor. “The dining room table was paid for by a Medical Center,” he explains. “The 15th-and 16th-century Spanish saints are two Streets of San Francisco; and the Spanish Renaissance bedroom is one Cannon, a Mary Tyler Moore and half a Hawaii Five-0.” As for Rich Man, Poor Man, “I expect it to buy me a house.”
Any actor who plunges his residuals into Russian icons scarcely fits the Hollywood mold. His wife, Beverly, also 29, has the looks of a starlet but is in fact a multilingual designer, the daughter of an international banker. She and Strauss met seven years ago at an exhibit of John Lennon’s erotic lithographs where, Peter remembers, “I was intrigued by the way she tilted her head to see who was doing what and where.” (Her parents objected to the marriage in 1972 and still don’t approve of Peter. “I can’t help admiring their consistency,” he says.)
Five years ago on a plane trip home from Paris, Beverly was reading the Irwin Shaw novel on which the series is based, when she suddenly blurted, “There’s a part in this book for you.” Strauss listened and agreed, if for no other reason than that the parallels between his youth and Rudy Jordache’s convinced him he was “fated to play it.”
Like the fictional Rudy, Peter was the son of a German immigrant to New York’s Hudson River Valley. Remarkably, both their fathers started out as bakers, although Peter’s dad later became a successful wine importer. And while Rudy Jordache went into business, Peter was hooked on theater, first at home in Croton-on-Hudson, then at a boys’ school in Tarrytown, N.Y. He studied acting at Northwestern (class of ’69) and headed for Hollywood the day he graduated.
Though Peter insists that “there’s no stigma attached to TV anymore,” he characterizes Los Angeles as “a mediocre world” populated by slick industry types. “It’s pathetic to see,” Strauss says. “The pallor around their eyes, the hollowness, all those Dorian Grays.” He shakes his head with disgust. “Once you’re successful,” he continues, “it’s so easy to get out and buy a chocolate-brown Mercedes, a $95 tapered silk shirt, three gold chains, one turquoise Indian bracelet, a shark’s tooth, white duck slacks from Georgio’s, Gucci shoes and a $900 bag from Hermès. This is a paranoid culture based on a desperate need to be loved and a fear of being judged incorrectly.”
Peter and Beverly avoid celebrity tennis tournaments. Peter nurses their 520 specimens of rare cacti—”I know every plant by heart,” he boasts—and catalogues their collection of 100 exotic seashells. He explains that “cactus plants mean something to me—and that is survival, at all costs.”
Every day Strauss hits the floor jogging at 4:30 a.m., after which Beverly runs with him and loyally fixes his breakfast (she is fattening him with thick milk shakes). Driving the 20 miles to the studio in his blue Fiat, the boyish Strauss submits first to an hour-long makeup session that turns him into the 40ish Rudy Jordache.
Peter is working with the producers and writers on scripts for the 22 segments, which for the first time go beyond the events of the Shaw book. The early plots cast Strauss as a maverick Republican senator in 1968, wrestling with issues like Vietnam, drugs and political assassination.
Peter seems serious about leaving the show after his one-year contract expires, having by then banked enough “screw-you money,” he figures, “to keep from having to do things like The Partridge Family.” Though he is still interested in films—he appeared in 1970’s Soldier Blue with Candy Bergen, and this summer did a cameo in Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon-Strauss also dreams of producing TV shows for kids or returning to the stage, his first passion. “I’ve proved I can play this character,” Strauss says. “Now I have to prove I can do something more daring.”