March 21, 1977 12:00 PM

Talia Shire was on the phone one day in late 1975 about to turn down the part of the mousy girlfriend in Rocky. She didn’t even think the half-hour drive from her home in the San Fernando Valley to MGM to pick up the script was worth it. Just then her husband, composer David Shire, walked in.

Because the producers of Rocky wanted him to score the film, he had a copy of the script and suggested Talia read it before deciding. Her reaction afterward, she recalls, was “My God! How I want to play this girl.” Her subsequent performance was good enough to land her an Academy Award nomination this year (though she is an obvious long shot).

Talia was the last actress writer-star Sylvester Stallone planned to interview for the part. Stallone remembers, “I asked Talia to improvise something with me. She put up a fist, almost hit me in the nose and drummed a tattoo on my stomach. She was so soft one minute; the next here I am wrestling Joe Louis.”

As it happened, David Shire, 39, had to turn down Rocky because he was already working on two movies. He is one of the busiest and most successful composers in Hollywood. One of his recent scores is the taut, understated music for this year’s best-picture nominee All the President’s Men. He wrote the theme for the TV hit Alice. And in Manhattan last week Shire opened a cabaret revue of love songs he has written with lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. (such as Starting Here, Starting Now, the show’s title).

Success seems finally to be liberating Talia and David from the pressures of competing with her formidably talented famiglia. Her big brother is the much-honored director Francis Ford Coppola, who brought Talia into prominence as Al Pacino’s hysterical sister in both Godfathers. Coppola also hired David to write the bluesy saxophone score for the director’s 1974 Cannes festival winner, The Conversation. Having grown up in a doting musical household in Buffalo, Shire complains good-naturedly, “I was programmed to be a star, but now I’m part of a family where Oscars line the fireplace, and I’m not the star.” Talia, 30ish, sounds much the same note when she observes, “I could have lived off all the male careers in my family. Everybody was always getting ovations, but I was in the wings.”

“Tally” Coppola grew up as the only daughter in an Italian patriarchy. Her father, Carmine, now 65, was a composer and once first flute for Toscanini’s NBC Orchestra. He moved around the East before settling on Long Island’s North Shore with his wife, Italia, and their three children. (Elder brother August, 40, is a Ph.D. in comparative literature and a novelist.) Talia, in high school, was “so painfully shy that if somebody looked at me my body would feel it.” Still, as “a closet actress with every fantasy in the book,” she convinced her family to send her to Yale Drama School in 1966. From there she moved to Hollywood to work with producer Roger Corman, whose B-minus bike-and-beast films were also a training ground for Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda.

Shire had preceded Tally to Yale by eight years. His mother, father, brother and great-grandfather were all classical musicians; David learned piano at 7 and organized a dance band in high school. He composed two musicals at college before he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and began writing for Off-Broadway, TV and Barbra Streisand (e.g., her 1969 hit What About Today?).

Talia says she decided that she and David were “preordained” to be together the moment she spotted him at an L.A. party eight years ago. “She had the best opening line I ever heard,” David remembers. “I said, ‘Hi,’ and she said, ‘Are you involved in 12-tone music?’ I wasn’t sure if she was serious or a wise ass.’ ” Talia explains, “Those were my hieroglyphics. I wanted to say that only I could understand a haunted, depressed musician.”

After she had overcome David’s “Talmudic caution,” they were married ecumenically on Easter Sunday, 1970 by a rabbi and a minister. “She’s Italianized me, and I’ve Jewishized her,” David jokes, and Talia adds: “He’s given me guilt, and I’ve given him shame.” The Coppola clan took to David “heart and soul,” Talia says, especially after his first visit to Naples. There, Papa Carmine recalls delightedly, “David ate and drank everyone under the table. That’s when we knew we loved him.”

Still, the couple’s first months together were emotionally perilous. David was so immersed in composing that “I might as well not have been there.” Talia felt “physically sleepy all the time because I was denying my creative side to be a good wife.” She got help from two sources: a psychiatrist, who “took me through the rough spots,” and brother Francis, who gave her a chance in The Godfather (she won a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for Godfather II). Now David credits Talia with helping him relax—”I let my subconscious mind do the work.” Tally says, “He was like a little kid standing on the shore of a lake with this beautiful boat clutched in his arms. I helped him let it go so it would sail.”

With their professional lives in control, the Shires weathered a frightening crisis together last year when their newborn son, Matthew Orlando, now 18 months, was rushed to the hospital with a blood infection. “They told me that if I’d waited another 48 hours he would have died,” Talia shudders. “Things like nominations and being a hustling actress are leveled to the ground after experiences like that.” After Rocky she did not work the rest of 1976 in order to help nurse her son back to health with no permanent aftereffects.

The Shires plan to buy a big motor home to live in whenever Talia is working on location. She’s in great demand these days. Having broken into TV as Nick Nolte’s tarty girlfriend in Rich Man, Poor Man, Talia has finished a made-for-NBC movie as the lawyer of executed murderer Caryl Chessman. She was also asked to play opposite former Yale schoolmate Henry Winkler in his first post-Fonz movie, Heroes, but turned it down. One report said she demanded and was refused script approval; she says, “Some inner voice told me not to do it.”

That motor home will also contain a piano for David since he has started work scoring Lew Grade’s March or Die, a French Foreign Legion epic. Like Talia, he sees a connection between their professional success and their marriage.

“I’m willing to take risks and trust my intuition from the example she’s set,” David says. “Our marriage is not an end; it’s a process.”

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