On CBS’ Knots Landing, where he makes do as the spineless Gary Ewing, Ted Shackelford visits no wilder places than the boudoir of Donna Mills, with whom he is having a torrid TV affair. But recently Shackelford found himself facing another camera on a set spectacular enough to awe any actor: California’s Yosemite National Park. Outfitted with backpack, jeans and hiking boots, striding alongside a rushing mountain stream, Shackelford passionately extolled the splendor of Yosemite while delivering a pointed message about conservation.
The occasion was the first in a series of 30-second public service TV spots Shackelford has organized for the Sierra Club. “It seems as if there ought to be something to accomplish with celebrity other than stroking my ego,” explains Shackelford. Indeed, in this role his nemesis is not J.R. but rather R.R. “I think President Reagan and Interior Secretary Watt care, but they care about the wrong things,” he says. “The whole ecological chain is going down the tubes. Instead of developing new resources, Reagan and Watt are trying to squeeze every ounce of oil and coal out of the earth. It’s as if you were dying of hunger and started eating your foot and working your way up.”
Shackelford’s Yosemite project has not only returned him to an environment he cherishes but allowed him to escape temporarily from a role that has its frustrations. “Gary’s just a shmuck most of the time,” he acknowledges. “He’s manipulated by women.” Shackelford, a self-described loner who says that “people have always scared the hell out of me,” worries that his insecurities have been compounded by typecasting. “You think, ‘My God, there’s something about me. I allow myself to be pushed around.’ You have to tell yourself it’s fiction.”
He also seethes from time to time about the kind of network censorship that would leave one of his favorite bedroom scenes on the cutting room floor. “Sexual arousal is an emotion,” he argues. “We deal in emotions. It happens to all of us. I object to this whole Calvinist approach to life.” At the same time, Shackelford is aghast at certain jiggle-show excesses: “It’s tits jumping up and down, and little girls’ butts going back and forth. It’s voyeuristic pap.”
Compared to his rocky TV marriage, Shackelford’s own union with Jan Leverenz, 34, an aspiring actress he met in 1974, is “safe, secure and fun.” Has he ever been tempted, like Gary Ewing, to engage in a bit of infidelity? “I create fantasy for a living,” he says. “I don’t need to live it.” The couple have decided there is no room in their schedules for children. “I don’t think I could be responsible for little human beings I’d created,” Ted explains. “It sounds selfish, but I’d rather spend the time and care on me and my work.”
Born in Oklahoma City in 1948 and raised in Tulsa, the oldest of five children of a physician and a nurse, Ted began acting at 18 while going to high school in Missouri. He graduated from the University of Denver in 1969 with a degree in theater and after three years in community theater went to New York with $500. After some lean years of dinner theaters and working nights as a hotel manager, he landed 12 episodes on the soap Another World and stayed for another year. “I found it very unsatisfying in the end,” he says. But he earned enough money and exposure to risk a move to Los Angeles in 1977. After two years of forgettable TV movies and guest spots in prime-time TV series, he did the 1979 pilot for Knots Landing, which debuted the following September.
He and Jan now live in a 1912 house in Hollywood. The Shackelfords are engaged in a massive restoration project, and Ted works out every other day at a local gym to keep his 175-pound physique trim. Though firmly dedicated to the call of the wild, the actor claims he’s no political animal. Insists Shackelford: “I just get interested in what pisses me off.”