March 07, 1988 12:00 PM

Television can be a jungle; just ask Sam Freed. Some years ago, before he snagged his present role on CBS’ hot Kate & Allie, Freed was tapped for a sitcom pilot titled Kangaroos in the Kitchen. As one of the few humans in the ill-fated comedy, he quickly found himself fighting for camera time with a llama, a chimpanzee, a raccoon and a cat. Taping stopped whenever the untrained llama urinated on the set, and the raccoon had to be tied to keep him from eating his feline co-star. Worst of all, says Freed, was that “we all got equal billing.”

Mercifully the networks never unleashed Kangaroos as a series. Less happily Freed, 39, had to give up regular paychecks until this season, when he finally landed on Kate & Allie. The four-year-old hit, starring Jane Curtin and Susan Saint James as roommate divorcees, had featured Freed in earlier episodes. On one occasion he played a philandering politician (seeking more than Curtin’s vote); later he appeared as an aging ex-football player. He proved so popular with the show’s staff, says producer Bill Per-sky, that “any time they wanted to cast a character, somebody would say, ‘Let’s bring Sam Freed back. We can dye his hair or give him a scar.’ ”

Now Freed’s football player walk-on has turned into a running role as Bob Barsky, TV sports announcer and Curtin’s steady beau. For the actor, the work has meant a welcome change from capricious casting calls. “I have lost roles in auditions because I reminded somebody of a brother-in-law they didn’t like,” he says. “Regardless of what you do, it’s how you are received.”

In Freed’s case that wasn’t always loud and clear. The youngest of six children born to a York, Pa., housewife and a traveling salesman, Freed first tried acting in a high school production of Camelot. “I thought, ‘What the hell, I’m too small to play ball, and it’s a way to get attention,’ ” he says.

In 1971, after a string of odd jobs and unsuccessful auditions, he hooked up with the Proposition, an improvisational New York comedy revue whose cast included the then-unknown Jane Curtin. When an advertising executive saw him onstage and tried to hire him for a commercial, Freed balked. At that point “I was saying, ‘I won’t do commercials. I am here only to do Ibsen,’ ” he recalls with a smile. “We were making $125 a week with the improv show. When I did my first radio spot for Chevrolet, and all it involved was me saying, ‘Well, it opens nicely,’ and then I got a check for hundreds of dollars, it occurred to me that this was something to pursue.”

Following a stuttering succession of TV bit parts, Freed finally found success the old-fashioned way—through luck. A chance hallway encounter with a casting agent led to a 1986 role as a detective in CBS’ Courage with Sophia Loren. A similar hallway bump-in brought him to a Kate & Allie tryout and a reunion with his old stagemate Jane Curtin, who in the interim had gone on to stardom in the original cast of Saturday Night Live.

Freed’s role in the New York-based series has meant lengthy separations from actress Barrie Youngfellow, 40, his wife of five years and a regular on TV’s It’s a Living, which is filmed in L.A. Now Freed keeps a one-bedroom apartment as his Manhattan base and flies home to the couple’s modest two-bedroom West L.A. town house about seven times a year. “The relationship is a romantic one because of the distance,” insists Youngfellow. “But it’s also difficult. You should see our phone bills. I think I’m a charter member of Sprint.”

For now, the coast-to-coast calls will continue. Producer Persky considers Freed a happy addition to Kate & Allie, thanks in part to his longtime friendship with Curtin. “There is a non-threatening warmth between them,” he says. “I love to watch them neck on the show. They are like two puppies.” Off-camera, Freed has also gotten chummy with 12-year-old Freddie Koehler, Curtin’s TV son, whose real parents are divorced. “When Sam came along, he spent a lot of time with Freddie, roughhousing and working on little tricks to play on the set, like gluing things to the table that nobody knew about,” says Persky. “He is really a strong, good role model.” Says Koehler: “Sam is an adult, but he’s really a kid, which is great.”

Hoping to keep his career on a roll, Freed recently finished a movie mystery titled Call Me with Patricia (Desert Hearts) Charbonneau, not yet set for release. Neither the series nor the film quite adds up to Ibsen, he concedes. But for now it certainly beats the good old days of playing second banana to a chimp.

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