March 24, 1980 12:00 PM

In 1974 Hollywood writer-producer Bob Kaufman was by his own description a “charming” philanderer, hustler, liar, Valium junkie and all-around nut case, not to mention $500,000 in debt. So it was only natural that when he conned tall, elegant, 19-years-younger photographer Robin Krause into their first date, Kaufman questioned her honor. “She told me she was a virgin,” he says. “I didn’t believe it.”

Soon, he reports with a resurrected sense of wonder, he found out Robin was telling the truth. Their relationship was consummated in three months, and three years later she became the third Mrs. Kaufman as well as his associate producer. He co-produced 1979’s Love at First Bite, starring George Hamilton as a parody Dracula, and wound up such a valuable commodity that AlP/Filmways gave him a five-year contract at $600,000 per, plus percentages. “I could make The Tomato That Ate Cincinnati and someone would buy it,” goes Kaufman’s latest jest. For now, he has turned out Nothing Personal, with Donald Sutherland and Suzanne Somers, premiering next week, and the upcoming comedy How to Beat the High Cost of Living. And fortunately or not, while becoming a raving success, Bob, 49, according to Robin, remained the same “big, warm, wonderful person” he had always been.

Robin was a photographer of livestock when she tracked Kaufman down at a county fair where he had come to sell his stable of Arabians. “His ex-wife owed me $54,” Robin recalls, “and I wanted to collect it.” Within a few dates Kaufman was enthralled and, “deciding I needed a woman to take care of me, I pretended I was cracking up.” Robin rushed to his house and found him lying on the floor wrapped in a blanket watching a TV football game. “She sat there stroking my head and holding me,” he recalls gleefully. “I knew I had her hooked.” It was another conquest with what he calls “my Woody Allen whining number.”

Along with an apparent loony, Robin acquired his pampered brood of four children, who enjoyed terrorizing housekeepers. “We tried to see how long they would last,” admits Melissa, now 19. Meanwhile the constantly traveling Kaufman was sinking deeper into the pills he used to conquer his phobia about flying. “I used to wake Robin up at four in the morning and demand that she tell me that she loved me,” he recounts. “Every time she’d bring up Valium I’d smack her. My personality was Godzilla.” Finally a hypnotherapist (the third psychiatrist he had been to over the years) helped him. “But it was Robin,” says Kaufman, “who straightened out my life.”

It had started out sanely enough in Manhattan, where Kaufman’s father owned an all-night drugstore whose customers included Flo Ziegfeld and Al Capone. “I spent the first part of my life running away from Irish kids who said that I killed Christ,” recalls Bob. But he was a strong enough kid to get an offer to play ball with a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team. His mother said no way, and Bob wound up at Columbia University, “majoring in Barnard College girls.”

He got into showbiz as a publicist and in 1954 he met first wife Judy. “We went back to her apartment in Greenwich Village, she changed into a bathrobe, and two months later we got married,” he recounts with typical gallantry of their first date. “I woke up the next morning hearing someone scream at me to go out and make money.” That led him into comedy writing, beginning with his client Dick Shawn, and eventually he caught on as a $1,250-a-week head writer on Bob Newhart’s first TV series.

He moved his growing family to Encino, Calif. only to get into a spat with Newhart and quit cold after 28 episodes. Free-lancing was less lucrative. “I was making $30,000 a year and spending $70,000,” he remembers, “and then Norman Lear offered me $500 for every idea I would send him.” Bob next got into movie writing with drive-in-level scripts for Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and Ski Party and then some more respectable works like Getting Straight, Divorce American Style and Freebie and the Bean. His finances were briefly steady but his marriage was not.

This period is best described in Kaufman’s own words, which sometimes sound like one of his own tragicomic scenarios. “I was in my mid-30s, grinding my teeth and quietly playing around, and going through a mini-breakdown,” he begins. “I left home and checked into a motel with $500 worth of pornographic books. All I did was read and eat meatball sandwiches. I had no money and was hiding my car in different driveways so it wouldn’t be repossessed. Then,” he continues, “my lawyer’s secretary, Patti, called me one day, and I told her I was going to drive my car off Mulholland Drive. She got turned on by this mentally incapacitated person and came over. We fell into bed and that night she left her husband. Within a year I was making $150,000 writing the TV series The Ugliest Girl in Town, but Patti was spending every penny Judy wasn’t. I gave her airplane lessons and she had an affair with her instructor. Finally, she said she’d marry the first man she saw if I refused to divorce Judy. A parking attendant watched us fight. A few weeks later she married him.”

No, that’s not the end, and Kaufman picks up the story, which—implausible as it seems—neither Judy nor Patti denies. “The car parker and Patti split in 1970. I divorced Judy, married Patti and later took the four children. She got into raising horses. We were losing $100,000 a year. She checked into a sanitarium and became captain of the volleyball team. I am left with the goddamn horses and another divorce.” (Patti is now recovered and working again as a legal secretary. Judy is executive secretary of a California branch of Alcoholics Anonymous.)

Life for his third wife, Robin, had been, not surprisingly, more genteel. The daughter of a Ziegfeld girl and a retired Marine, who nurtured her early love for horses, at 15 she was showing Arabians around her La Habre Heights, Calif. home and became an apprentice to famed livestock photographer Johnny Johnston. After graduating from a private Catholic girls’ school, she was accepted at the Cal Arts School, where she studied cinematography and fashion design. Continuing photography, she took on advertising accounts and began hanging out at the Whiskey A Go Go, where she was hired to shoot rock artists. She still plans to publish a book from her negatives of the late Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Her other activities include overseeing a family sideline marketing Dracula dolls and her own script-writing. Already she’s sold a series concept to NBC based on her relationship with Bob. Its working title: Goldilocks and the Four Bernsteins.

Meanwhile Goldilocks and her Bernstein are contemplating moving from their rented Brentwood home to a $2.5 million hacienda in Bel Air. There goes the neighborhood? Not necessarily. “People say, ‘There’s a nice Jewish man with a blond wife,’ ” notes their friend Susan Saint-James. “But their relationship is much deeper. They’re a perfect balance. Robin gives Bob a voice of reason, and she is also strong.” His associate producer doesn’t deny it. “I’m the hatchet lady,” Robin admits. “I do the dirty work like firing people. He’s the sweet big bear who can’t say no to anybody.” Is she talking about the Bob Kaufman?

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