February 05, 1979 12:00 PM

Howard Piatt, who plays the airline captain in CBS’s Flying High, is by all appearances an attractive catch. But when Connie Sellecca, cast as one of the stews, breathlessly phoned from Hollywood to tell her traditional Italian family in New York about their forthcoming engagement, her mother had one trepidation. No, it wasn’t Howard’s age (he’s 40 to Connie’s 23). Nor was it his earlier divorce. The matter was more delicate. “Tell me,” asked Mama, “is he really that dumb?”

Mercifully, Howard is not, though a lot of the jiggle in this series is between the ears of the character he plays so convincingly. Captain March is like Ted Baxter with wings. By contrast, Connie plays Lisa Benton, the most sophisticated of the three flight attendants in the rather choppy comedy.

“I was attracted to him the first day we met,” says Connie of their introduction while taping the original test episode last spring. “I thought she was absolutely beautiful,” chimes in Howard. “And her beauty goes beyond her looks. I couldn’t believe she was 22—her poise is incredible.” But, Connie claims, he then stood her up for a date (“She knows that’s not true,” Piatt protests). Lightning didn’t strike until Connie fell from a horse during filming and suffered a severe concussion. She awoke in the hospital to find Howard by her side. “I just felt little stirrings of love which eventually flowered,” he explains. There was, of course, the problem that both were otherwise romantically involved at the time. But then came a five-hour lunch together (at the Cock ‘n’ Bull on Sunset Boulevard) and a few dates. Finally, reports Howard, “I said, ‘Gee, it would be really nice to be married to you,’ and she said, ‘It would be nice to be married to you too,’ and that was that.”

One other obstacle was more stubborn. After their engagement Connie and Howard asked their Flying High producers to remove the divider separating their quarters in the unit trailer. But the brass refused on the grounds that the trailer would collapse.

Connie, who had balked at moving into Howard’s Malibu place without a band to go with her engagement ring, set a December 2 wedding date. They planned to fly both their families to a Vermont ceremony. “But a week before the wedding, the show was renewed and we only had one day off,” she groans. “We had to cancel all the plans and get all the money back. We haven’t been able to set another date because we don’t know how the show’s going to do.” (Neither, apparently, does CBS, which went ahead producing episodes but has postponed airing them because of marginal ratings. Howard thinks an earlier time slot would help, because of the youth orientation of the show, but no one’s asked him.)

In the meantime Piatt and Sellecca have compromised the cohabitation issue by settling into a newly rented Hollywood Hills place that he says “looked like a Saigon whorehouse at first. We’re just living together and it’s very comfortable.” Connie explains her new, more relaxed attitude on nuptials: “We’re in no rush now.”

Born Concetta Sellecchia in the Bronx, Connie moved at 12 to Pomona, N.Y. (Her Italian immigrant dad co-founded a construction firm and now he runs the Pineland Farms nursery in Harrison, N.Y.) In junior high, she remembers, “I was an unattractive adolescent. I had braces—I mean tin-mouth—very thick glasses, long stringy hair and bangs.” But by her 1973 graduation from Ramapo High, she had shaped up so much that the 5’9″, 120-pound beauty chanced a visit to Manhattan’s Wilhelmina modeling agency before college. Bye-bye higher education. With a $500 stake borrowed from her dad, Connie moved in with four other wishfuls and eventually worked her way up to big-stake jobs like Excedrin, Cachet perfume, Schick hair appliances and Tickle deodorant. (Piatt, no competition in that market, stars only in a spot still running in Chicago for Hamm’s beer.) Though she never acted outside of high school plays, two years ago Sellecca landed an ABC movie of the week, The Bermuda Depths, which led to Flying High.

Howard, one of four children of an electric company employee (who became an actor after his retirement at 69) and a nurse, grew up near Chicago but spent boyhood summers on the South Dakota farm his great-great-grandfather had settled. A would-be actor since 16, he worked amateur nights as a singer and comedian and on radio during an Army stint in Greenland. He turned pro at 28. “I was a late bloomer,” he explains. He broke into the women’s and church club theater circuit, doing a one-man Abraham Lincoln show to keep solvent. Then in 1971 he shifted into movies as Candice Bergen’s blind date in T.R. Baskin, which led to a call to Canada as Lee Marvin’s sidekick in Prime Cut. “Lee, in his own inimitable way, told me to get my ass to Hollywood,” Howard remembers. He did, snagging roles on the Bob Newhart Show and as the cop on Sanford and Son. By 1973 his four-year marriage to Alison Mitchell, a former model now in real estate, ended in divorce. “There was a difficult period,” he admits, “but that’s over with and we get on fine.”

Now Piatt and his new lady thrive on a bantering relationship that celebrates their differences. She hates to cook; he loves to. He goes on canoe trips; she won’t, thank you. He does 20 minutes of aerobics and gulps a fistful of vitamins daily and wants her to see his nutritionist. Her health secrets, she reveals, are “I smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, I eat cookies and I eat sugar.” She wants to have kids someday; he isn’t sure. They split all bills and living expenses down the middle—which is fortunate, since Connie regards Howard as a hopeless spendthrift for accumulating what even he admits is a “used car lot” of six automobiles in five years.

Both of them have learned to adjust to a TV grind that frequently jerks them out of bed at 4:30 a.m. But Howard would like to start a regional theater company, while Connie is antsy to get into movies. “A series is not the ultimate for me,” she says. “I’d like to do a role that didn’t call for an attractive woman.” That may be unlikely, but meanwhile the couple seems to have built an office romance solid enough to survive the next threat: that CBS will close down the office.

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