August 10, 1981 12:00 PM

For an actor who has been compared to John Barrymore and called one of the great Hamlets of the age, Stacy Keach is still several watts short of stardom. At 40, he has an enviable reputation for his work in films, theater and TV. Now he is getting raves for his first musical, the road company production of Barnum, in which he has the title role. He is paid handsomely for his films ($200,000 per), owns a ranch in Malibu, and for flash can point to two divorces and a past romance with singer Judy Collins. So Where’s his fame? The fault, says Keach, lies in the star system. “I’ve spent a lifetime eluding popular recognition,” he says. “In America, being a great Hamlet is not as important as being a great Barney Miller. No one cares about a guy running around going ‘To be or not to be.’ ”

No matter, at least to Stacy’s most loyal fan: Jill Donohue Keach, 41, his new wife. She has been a European jet-set bride, a Hollywood starlet and most recently a successful Beverly Hills landscape designer. Yet last May, when the Barnum company was in New Orleans—the first stop on its yearlong, five-city national tour—she dropped everything to become the third Mrs. Keach. Now she tends to his career, jabs him good when his acting is off (“You weren’t very nice to the audience tonight”) and no longer worries full-time about Floradora, her L.A. firm.

She has never been awed by Keach. In fact, at first she didn’t even know the actor she was dating had fans. On their second night out, at a restaurant, some Soviet musicians recognized Keach, whose movies have played well in the U.S.S.R., and smothered him in adulation. When they left, Jill recalls, “I leaned over and said, ‘Just who are you?’ ” Said he: “Don’t worry. I’m basically a cult personality.”

Maybe so, but the cult is growing, thanks currently to Barnum, in which Keach sings, dances, juggles and walks a 35-foot tightrope, and the new Cheech and Chong film, Nice Dreams, in which he plays Sarge, a pothead narc. But the big change is in his personal life. “I’ve never met any woman who understands me as much,” says Stacy, who lived with Jill two and a half years before they wed. “With Jill, every day on the road is like a working vacation.” Jill’s view of the relationship is simply “It’s magic.” They are even hoping to have “several” offspring.

The two were introduced by her best friend, actress Jill St. John. “They were destined to get together,” St. John says. “They have the same enthusiasm. The first time I met Stacy, I immediately thought of Jill.”

What Jill first thought was something else. “It’s a curse going out with someone after you’ve been told, ‘You must meet him,’ ” she says. Worse still, Keach was in the midst of a divorce from his second wife. “You’re not dealing with a full deck when you’re going through that,” Jill adds. “Also, he was an actor, which is not always desirable. I figured it would be a disaster.”

But when they met at St. John’s Los Angeles home, it was “interest at first sight,” as Stacy puts it. What struck him, besides her champagne-blond beauty, was that Jill was “a great listener.” She liked his unaffectedness: “He didn’t just come into the room and start tap-dancing.” The week after they met he called her for dinner. Then she invited him to go roller-skating. Keach fell so often that he got hairline fractures in both wrists. Within a month they were living together. Now she calls him “Keach.” He calls her “Snuss,” a Swedish word meaning lovable. (Jill is half Swedish.)

Both come from theatrical families. Though Keach was born in Savannah, Ga., his father, Stacy Sr., who produces industrial films and acts in commercials, moved the family to California in 1941. Stacy Jr. was a high school athlete, but his main interest was always acting. After starting a prelaw program at the University of California to please his father, he majored in theater, then went on to Yale Drama School. In his first year he won the award for the best stage performance but flunked his acting courses—he hated the academic requirements. By 1965, after studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art on a Fulbright, he landed in New York and began getting parts.

To be sure, Keach has had to overcome handicaps. A football injury left him with a limp, and he wears a mustache to hide a harelip. His hooded eyes, he says, are “like a lizard’s.” Yet oddly, one thing that has helped keep him from being really big box office is his very versatility. He has played a huge variety of characters—including Falstaff, Doc Holliday and Lyndon Johnson—in works by everybody from O’Neill through Brecht to Kopit. He had a chance for sustained exposure in the 1975 TV cop series Caribe, but it was soon canceled. Afterward, Keach recalls, “I didn’t get a phone call for nine months. I mean, I couldn’t get arrested.” Most of his 26 movies have been fast faders too—including The Long Riders, the 1980 Western he co-produced and starred in with his younger brother James. As a result, says Keach, “When I’m considered for a top movie role, I’m usually 10th on a list headed by Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Gene Hack-man and Dustin Hoffman.”

Jill’s mother, Tutta Rolf, is a Swedish musical and movie star. Her father, Jack Donohue, is a Hollywood director who does TV specials for Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball. Jill was born in Stockholm and raised in L.A. After her parents divorced when she was 10, she shuttled between the two cities. She was studying acting in Stockholm when, at 20, she met Swedish racing car driver Ulf Norinder. “He was very flamboyant,” she recalls. “The first time I met him he said, ‘I’m going to marry you.’ I remember turning bright red and wanting to get away.” She didn’t. Their marriage was “fun,” she says, “but it wasn’t what marriage is all about.” At 25, she fled Ulf, joined her father in L.A. and was soon signed by Columbia. “My biggie was Winter à Go-Go,” Jill says. On TV, her career high was doing bit parts on I Spy. “I usually played a Bulgarian or Italian who was always lurking,” she says. “Not my idea of heaven.”

She soon quit acting altogether. After trying various other pursuits, including peddling megavitamin pills when they were big in Tinseltown, she started Floradora in 1974. While the firm flourished, her romantic life did not. She had a desultory relationship with an unsuccessful writer-actor-director that went on for nine years. Says Jill: “I don’t flit about well.”

On the road, the Keaches spend their free time visiting art and antique stores and sightseeing. Back home they sail, ski, ride horses, go dancing and give small dinners. The rest is work. While touring in Barnum, Stacy is preparing a Long Riders sequel and has started a firm to produce TV shows on science, a longtime interest. Jill is designing a Japanese rock garden for the Malibu ranch. “She teaches me about plants and fauna and I talk to her about science,” Keach says.

They rarely argue. “We have a policy that if something is pissing us off we say it,” Jill explains. “It’s what we call keeping the cupboards clean.” And why, after two failed marriages, does Stacy think this time will be different? “In the past I was often too preoccupied with my own interests,” he says, “but I’ve changed. Jill and I really enjoy being respectful of each other. We’re sickeningly compatible.”

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