December 08, 1986 12:00 PM

Maybe Kirk Douglas, whom she seduced in Tough Guys, puts it best: “With a name like Fluegel, she’d better be good.” He’s got a point—Darlanne Fluegel is not the most mellifluous name ever thrown at the silver screen. Yet it hasn’t stopped the blond, gray-eyed actress from co-starring in one of TV’s most talked-about new shows, Crime Story, and in two of the year’s film hits, Running Scared with Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal, and Tough Guys with Burt Lancaster and Douglas. Clearly, Fluegel is doing just fine.

“It hasn’t been easy,” says Darlanne, 30, as she relaxes on the porch of her five-acre ranch, watching as her husband tinkers under the hood of a ’57 Chevy pickup. “It is tough to get people in the acting world to take you seriously if you’ve been a successful model,” she adds. “Some models turn out to be good actresses; most are terrible.”

The difference in Fluegel’s case, according to her modeling mentor, Eileen Ford, “is that she approached her acting scientifically. She worked at it and didn’t let the hype go to her head. A lot of models wouldn’t have done that.”

Actually Fluegel never intended to be a model. Raised in Binghamton, N.Y., she was a tomboy who felt more kinship with her three younger brothers than her two older sisters. When she was 16, her father, a chiropractor, died suddenly of a brain tumor. Darlanne turned to modeling “not to be a burden” on her mother, who worked with the Department of Social Security, and “as a quick way out of Binghamton.” Working first with the Ford Agency and then with Zoli, Fluegel started modeling in 1974 at $100 per hour and ended that career in 1981 at triple her hourly rate.

“I realized I was washed up as a model at 25,” she says. “I’d been in the business for years, and a lot of people thought I was even older than I was. I realized I had to make a drastic change in my life.” Fluegel, who had appeared in a film once, as a model in 1978’s Eyes of Laura Mars, chose to pursue a career in acting. “I wasn’t ready after Laura Mars. Let’s just say that it wasn’t much of a stretch to portray a New York model being chased by a weirdo. But when I was 25 I decided to go for it. What the hell, right? I was always determined to succeed at whatever I did and I figured Hollywood was a tough nut to crack—but one that could be broken.”

The first acting offers came slowly, and the characters were all models. “I made a deal with my agent—I’d rather play a bag lady than a high-fashion model,” says Fluegel. She didn’t have to go that far, as better roles gradually came along—Robert DeNiro’s girlfriend in Once Upon a Time in America, a junkie in To Live and Die in L.A.—until her career mushroomed this year.

Perhaps her best shot at the future is NBC’s Crime Story, Michael (Miami Vice) Mann’s glistening, acid-dipped vision of Chicago cops in the early ’60s. Though criticized for its excessive violence and jeopardized in the ratings by a time slot opposite Moonlighting, Crime Story is one of the first new shows of the season to be renewed for next year.

Fluegel sees her character—the WASPy wife of crime buster Mike Torello (Dennis Farina)—as a “woman trying to come to terms with the ’60s. She wants the American dream—a nice home, a husband, a family—but those things are falling apart.” Not so for Darlanne. She’s been married for three years to Michael Small, 27.

“I always told my mother and grandmother that I’d never find the right man to marry,” says Fluegel. “They’d laugh and say, ‘One day he’ll just walk through a door and you’ll know he’s the one.’ I’d say, That is such b.s.’ But they were right. Michael walked into an acting class I was taking, and I knew he was the one I should marry. He was the only guy I’d ever met who didn’t put up with my nonsense. He was the Petruchio to my Kate.”

“I’m a pastrami-fed cowboy,” says Small, a Brooklyn-born rodeo rider and acting hopeful who makes a living by buying and selling quarter horses. Ten horses are currently stabled on the couple’s ranch, an hour north of Los Angeles.

“I’d always talked about moving out to the country,” says Darlanne, “but sometimes that’s one of my problems—I talk about it. Michael is the kind of guy who quietly gets things done. Next thing I knew, we were getting ready to move. This place isn’t our dream—that lies somewhere in Colorado—but it’s better than living in the city. All my life I’ve wanted a husband, horses and a horizon,” she says, surveying her spread from the porch. “Now I have all three.”

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