By Tim Allis
February 28, 1994 12:00 PM

MAYBE IT WAS THE HEAVY BREATHING DEMANDED BY THE script. Or the sultry Charleston, S.C., and St. Francisville, La., locations that stood in for the antebellum South. Or the women’s bosom-enhancing bodices and the men’s sleekly tailored uniforms. Something was in the air during the 1985 filming of North and South, ABC’s Civil War miniseries based on John Jakes’s 1982 best-seller. How else to explain the real-life romances—and eventual marriages—of three couples who met while working on the show? “The period garb helped,” admits actor Jonathan Frakes, who played Yankee wimp Stanley Hazard. Frakes’s wife, Genie Francis (cast as Stanley’s sister-in-law, Brett Main Hazard), concurs: “The guys looked so dashing, and the women looked so gorgeous. We all looked good!”

So good, apparently, that the TV saga (which spawned a 1986 sequel and concludes next week with the three-night, six-hour John Jakes’ Heaven and Hell: North and South, Part III, premiering Feb. 27 on ABC) not only became the crucible for Frakes and Francis’s offscreen ardor but it also enabled then-assistant cameraman (and now director of photography) Don Fauntleroy to zoom in on his future male, actress Lesley-Anne Down (who plays invincible Madeline Main). And it swept James Read (Stanley Hazard’s Union general brother George) and Wendy Kilbourne (George’s wife, Constance) into each other’s arms—literally. Says Down, who like the other actors has been onboard for all three installments: “It was a very romantic set for a lot of people.”

Back in ’85, Read first locked eyes with Kilbourne at a dance-scene rehearsal. After that, he and Kilbourne, now 29, “did a mating dance of our own for about a month,” says Read, 40. “She gave me a gaze that said, ‘I’m here and you’re not leaving.’ ” He didn’t. The couple moved in together in 1987 and married the following year.

That come-hither stare also worked for Francis, 31, who had first met Frakes, 41, when both costarred on the short-lived NBC series Bare Essence in 1983. There, she says, “he treated me like one of the guys—which I loved.” But on the North and South set, she developed “a big crush” on him, she says, and flirted, southern belle-style, with “meaningful looks, giggling and fanning.” She was blushing, however, the night Frakes and Read took her and Kilbourne to a Bourbon Street strip joint to celebrate Genie’s 23rd birthday. “It was so embarrassing, I was dying,’ ” she says. “But it was funny.” Just a few weeks later, though, when Frakes proposed a weekend getaway, she balked. “I was scared,” says Francis, whose lack of an offscreen love life during her original stint as teenage Laura on General Hospital (to which she returned, nine years later, last fall) “made me a little more innocent than a lot of women at 23.” She suggested she and Frakes have a low-key, old-fashioned date. “We went to a McDonald’s and sat in a church parking lot and talked,” recalls Francis. “Our wild lives!” quips Frakes, who moved in with her a year after North and South wrapped and popped the question—on his knees—in 1987.

The courtship of Down and Fauntleroy blazed a bit more intensely. Their first day on the set, he says, “we were very chatty, and it just grew from there.” Three months later, says Down, 39, “we had a sexual encounter.” (“A rampant affair!” exclaims Fauntleroy, 40.) The couple still mark their May Day tryst—not their wedding the following year—as their anniversary.

There was a reason they waited so long to lie the knot. Both were married at the time—Down unhappily, she says, to director William Friedkin; Fauntleroy to Susan Ducat, a housewife. After Down divulged her affair, Friedkin filed for divorce and demanded full custody of their son, Jack, then 2. She and Fauntleroy suspended their careers to devote the next two years to the legal battle. “Having to fight for your child is worse than having to fight for your own life,” says Down, who (after finally reaching an amicable settlement in 1987) shares custody of Jack evenly with Friedkin. (Fauntleroy’s daughters from his first marriage, Season, 14, and Juliana, 12, spend weekends at the three-bedroom cottage that he and Down rent in Malibu.) Their wrenching experience with Jack “proved our mettle,” says Down, “as partners and as parents.”

Read and Kilbourne recently faced an even more harrowing ordeal: the loss of their unborn child in the final month of Wendy’s pregnancy last month. “We’re devastated, but we’re making a slow and steady recovery,” says Read, who shares a four-bedroom house in the San Fernando Valley with Kilbourne and their son Jackson, 3.

“I can’t imagine a cruder thing to endure,” says Francis. She and Frakes are themselves expecting a child—their first—in August. “Jonathan’s going to be a great dad,” Francis predicts. “One night I found him going through all these books to see what I should be eating.”

Meanwhile, the three North and South couples still keep in touch. Read considers Frakes a close friend, and the two like practical jokes. After Frakes (now in his final season as Cmdr. William Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation) remarked how much he was looking forward to working outside of Trek, he arrived in his trailer on Heaven and Hell’s Old West set to discover a Trek uniform in his closet. “It came with a pair of cowboy boots and a hat,” says culprit Read.

But mostly the couples prefer their own company. “If Donny’s doing a job, I’ll always ask if there’s a part for me,” says Down, who look a lead role in Munchy Strikes Back for the Disney Channel because Fauntleroy was the director of photography. “There’s nothing like lighting a beautiful woman through a camera,” says Fauntleroy, “and when it’s someone you love, it’s magic.”

Still, their favorite collaboration remains North and South. “It’s been a momentous journey,” says Down. Francis puts it more emphatically. “It was without a doubt,” she says, “the best time of my life.”