September 10, 1984 12:00 PM

They still remember, the gang on the ABC soaper All My Children, that day in 1974 when, at the end of rehearsal, prankish Ruthie darted in front of the camera, flung open her cape and flashed a topless peekaboo. About the same time, to protest the studio’s feeble air-conditioning, she paraded through rehearsal in a housecoat unzipped to her midsection. So it shouldn’t be any surprise, considering her penchant for going au naturel, that on a recent steamy afternoon in Atlantic City the urge seized ocean-loving Ruthie again. With hundreds of beachgoers cavorting nearby, she shimmied out of her beige pants and waded thigh deep into the blue-green Atlantic, clad only in a long top and panties. “I do like to shock and surprise people,” says Warrick, who is 68, looks 48 and acts 28. “When it’s all in good fun, of course.”

Her sense of fun may startle 14 million viewers, who for nearly 15 years have known her as the aristocratic, meddling matron on one of television’s top-rated soaps—she of the thundering voice, starched frown and Catherine the Great personality. Before there were prime-time female piranhas like Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington and Falcon Crest’s Angela Channing, there was the insufferable haute bitchiness of Phoebe Tyler. “As a character that you love to hate, Phoebe was a prototype,” says Jacqueline Smith, ABC vice-president for daytime programming. “She is a pivotal character on the show.”

After five decades in radio, TV, theater and movies, five marriages, three children, two grandchildren and two facelifts (“There’s no way I could look like this without them”), Warrick has made Phoebe Tyler a household name and a full-blown cottage industry. A regular on the lecture circuit and at soap-opera functions ranging from disco contests to Softball tournaments, she has written an autobiography, The Confessions of Phoebe Tyler, and is about to release her first album, Phoebe Tyler Regrets. “I have a great investment in Phoebe,” she says. Okay, so maybe she’s never won an Oscar, or even an Emmy. But how many 68-year-old actresses are so successful that they have had to appear only once on The Love Boat?

Though Warrick is far less imperious than her onscreen alter ego, her patience is better not tested too freely. During one All My Children rehearsal, she grew irate when a propman failed to turn back a rug. Finally she bellowed, “Stand back!” tossed the carpet into the air and snapped, “There! That’s the way to flip the rug. Now do your job or get out of my way.” Then there was the time she appeared in Irene with Debbie Reynolds on Broadway but wasn’t seated at the head table for the opening-night party. She threw a tantrum “that started in the ladies’ room and carried into the hall,” says a friend. “That kind of thing is important to her.”

Warrick’s temperament consists of more than a temper. She is a stickler for daily meditation and carries a wisdom-filled prayer pamphlet at all times to deal with a variety of spiritual crises. When, on a promotional tour for the soap, she encounters fans with personal problems, she has been known to dash off a pages-long inspirational letter. Active in Democratic politics and voter-registration drives (she and good friend Jimmy Carter are still pen pals), she is a tireless charity worker whose heart bleeds for the underdog. After the 1965 riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles, she helped found Operation Bootstrap, a job-training program operating from a storefront. For Warrick such commitments fill an obvious need. “She has to feel that she’s doing something with her life,” says a friend. Explains Ruth: “Success has its limits and almost always we say, ‘Is that all there is?’ The only success that doesn’t have a negative side is something done for other people.”

Her social conscience, however, has never stifled her outrageous sense of humor. When invitations to the 1983 opening-night party for the Taylor-Burton revival of Private Lives requested outlandishly that women come adorned with tiaras, Warrick turned up in a crown with enough glitz for Miss Universe. Earlier, during her sojourn in Watts, she had asked that a plaque engraved “Given by Ruth Warrick” be put over the men’s urinal at the Bootstrap office. “I figured that if anybody gave me grief, I could say, ‘Look, I’ve been pissed on so many times before it doesn’t matter what you do to me.’ ”

As she approaches her eighth decade, her energy remains limitless, and she has never met an invitation she didn’t like, despite a workday that starts at 7:30 a.m. “Ruth is a goer and a doer, not a talker,” says her off-tube pal, All My Children star Susan Lucci.

It is mid-afternoon on a glistening summer day in Eastham, Mass., and Warrick is fresh from a bicycle ride and a dip in the ocean. She is sitting on the patio of her cozy, six-room white-painted captain’s house that is filled with the work of authors from Emerson to Cheever. It is a retreat she bought seven years ago, where she can garden by day and watch the Cape Cod sunsets by evening. Absent are her luxuriant Phoebe Tyler wigs, the false eyelashes, the glamorous threads. “What I’m really doing here,” she says, pointing to the verdant acreage that surrounds her, “is re-creating my grandmother’s farm.”

Born in St. Joseph, Mo., little Ruth grew up a “sweet, placid goody-goody” on her grandparents’ farm, Quiet Glen, after her father’s grain business failed during World War I. She idolized her optimistic, flamboyant father but could never be close to her stern, proper mother. In school she pushed herself to get straight A’s to please her parents, but found herself resented by some of her classmates. Later, by her mid-teens, she began experiencing a certain urge, and it wasn’t for a Rudy Vallee record. “I was finding out about sexuality,” she says. “My mother thought her wedding night was the most miserable night of her life and wanted me to feel the same way. I was taught that you don’t do those things, that they’re awful. So I decided that I must be an awful person because I really wanted to do them.” Ruth’s anxiety over sexual stirrings led to a nervous breakdown when she was a senior in high school. The doctor prescribed rest, iron shots and daily walks. Finally a clinical psychologist virtually commanded her to go to bed with her boyfriend, a prescription she quickly filled. She was 18. “It wasn’t like the 13- or 14-year-olds doing it today,” she says. “They’re physically ready, but not emotionally.”

As a child Ruth had been spellbound at her Baptist church by the stories of returning foreign missionaries, and for some time she considered becoming one. But after her father began taking her to see traveling theater troupes, she became convinced that her mission was acting. At first she kept her ambitions to herself. “According to my mother,” she says, “you weren’t supposed to do anything but get married, have a family and live next door.”

Ultimately Ruth got her way and went on to study drama at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Then she won a Chamber of Commerce contest and became a traveling spokeswoman, promoting Kansas City’s fall festival. That was her calling card to New York, where she moved in 1937 at 21, supporting herself with radio jobs and modeling work. One year later she met and married handsome Erik Rolf, a radio announcer and character actor. “I think I had been running away from my sexuality,” she says. “Suddenly it was safe.” Professionally her big break came in 1941, when she won the role of Orson Welles’ first wife in Citizen Kane. “Orson needed a lady, and that was the lump sum of all I had been taught,” she recalls. “He was the master and we were the disciples.” Swept away by hero worship, and with her marriage falling apart, she had a brief fling with Welles after the film came out. “He made me feel like queen of the world,” she says. The film opened doors for her—she has seen it 20 times—but it proved a mixed blessing for Welles. “Anything he has done since, people say, ‘It’s not Citizen Kane,’ ” observes Warrick. “Well, it was his vision, and who is to say any man must have more than one vision in a lifetime?”

She and Rolf moved to Hollywood in 1942, where Warrick was under contract to RKO. It was the heyday of the all-powerful studios, and the moguls wanted her to have plastic surgery. “They said my cheeks were too round,” she says. “I told them Claudette Colbert had round cheeks and she did okay.” Then they tried molding her after reigning glamour girls like Rita Hayworth and Maureen O’Hara. They chased her around the casting couch as well, but to no avail. “I’m too independent and could never have handled that,” says Warrick. “Oh, I’m no saint. I just couldn’t do it for business.”

Eventually, typecast as the well-bred, chin-up wife—one magazine dubbed her “the Brain”—Warrick appeared in 32 pictures after Citizen Kane, usually earning respectful notices. Later she returned to the stage. But while her professional life was perking along vigorously, her personal life was a disaster. “She did pick a lot of lemons,” muses a friend, and Welles, it turned out, would not be her only fling at the office. While making China Sky in 1945—and still married to Rolf—she carried on a torrid romance with co-star Anthony Quinn. “He was a mass of contradictions and insecurities,” she says, “but oh, he was some man. He’d bring records to the set and teach me to tango. Then we’d go for these long, rambling walks.” She fell into another liaison, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., while filming The Corsican Brothers in 1941. But the rules of the game were clear: What happened on the set would remain there. Still, she says, “Any time Douglas and I see each other even now there is a lift of the eyebrow and a twinkle.”

Warrick’s marriage to Rolf ended bitterly after seven years. Following their separation, she says, she learned he had been involved in homosexual relationships during the marriage. “I was deeply wounded, but I had two beautiful children and so I couldn’t repudiate him.” Then, in 1950, she married Danish interior decorator Carl Neubert. He wasn’t able to get along with the kids, she says, so she divorced him in 1952 and moved back to New York, where a producer friend approached her about doing daytime TV. “What are you trying to do, ruin my career?” she snapped. “Mrs. Citizen Kane do soap opera?” By the time she had rationalized a 180-degree change of mind (“There is nothing wrong with any good, clean, honest work”), she had won her first serial role on Guiding Light. Later she appeared for three years as Aunt Edie on As the World Turns. During this time she met a witty TV executive named Robert McNamara, who eventually helped her overcome her fear of remarrying. They wed in 1953, and for a while she was content playing the affluent suburban hausfrau. She and McNamara had a son, Tim, but her husband’s drinking took its toll, she says, and again she sought refuge in work. In 1961, during the final stages of their seven-year marriage, she moved back to Los Angeles to star on TV’s Father of the Bride opposite Leon Ames, and later as Hannah Cord, the mysterious housekeeper on Peyton Place.

Soon she was dating Neubert again. “When a man says, ‘You were right, I was wrong,’ that’s a very powerful thing,” she says. She divorced McNamara, who died in 1977, and remarried Neubert in 1961. This time it lasted two years. Her next, and final, fling at the altar was in 1975 with socialite Jarvis Cushing, a real estate agent nearly 10 years her junior who overwhelmed her during a monthlong courtship after she had packed up and returned to New York. “I was lonely and wanted somebody in my life,” she says. That marriage ended painfully 18 months later. “I was terribly angry that I wasn’t able to spot things,” she says. “I have not let myself get bitter, but it has made me straight-arm chances that have come along since.”

Some of her friends say Warrick is gullible about men; others say her husbands have been threatened by her ironbound will. According to her, the problem is rose-colored glasses. “I set up an ideal that isn’t there,” she admits. “Then reality sets in and the men tell me, ‘Well, I never said I was like that, Ruth. You were the one who did.’ ” These days she relies on younger, platonic escorts and doubts she will marry again. “I really love not having to accommodate to somebody else’s schedule,” she says. “I’ve grown self-centered in that respect.”

The living room of Warrick’s one-bedroom Park Avenue apartment is an explosion of greens and purples, dominated by a huge still life by artist/jeans queen Gloria Vanderbilt. Movie-star memorabilia adorn the walls, and family photos in frames clutter the coffee tables. (Son Jon, 42, is a clinical psychologist outside Washington; daughter Karen, 43, owns a computer-programming service in Cleveland; son Tim, 28, is studying at the University of Iowa.) Propped against a wall is a replica of Rosebud, the famous sled from Citizen Kane.

Though her show-business career now spans a half century, Warrick is chilled by the thought of retirement. “Phoebe has a lot more to give,” she declares, merging herself for one revealing moment with the character who has provided the actress with her most vivid public identity. She plans to keep giving as long as she’s able. She is preparing a one-woman show, to open next year, about Julia Ward Howe, who wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and has signed to do a murder-mystery feature, I Want to Kill Lila McGuire.

For all of her professional ups and personal downs (“I have taught myself to be resilient”), Warrick isn’t singing the blues. When it comes time for her to meet that Great Soap Opera Creator in the Sky, she would like her epitaph, she says, to read: “Thank you for this incredibly beautiful, exciting, unbelievably wonderful trip on the Spaceship Earth.” Then, with a great theatrical flourish, she throws her head back and adds, “I’ll probably be the only person with a tombstone that says, ‘Thank you.’ ”

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