By Robert Windeler
October 03, 1977 12:00 PM

When it comes to finding good material, James Whitmore and Audra Lindley have no problems. They get theirs straight off today’s front page. The gay rights issue and the sexual revolution? As Helen Roper, the wisecracking, muumuu-clad landlady in ABC’s hit new sexcom Three’s Company, Lindley casts a libidinous eye on her tenants’ shenanigans while complaining that her TV hubbie couldn’t mount a skirmish—much less a revolution.

The Panama Canal? As Teddy Roosevelt, the Bull Moose who started it all, Whitmore will carry a big stick to Broadway next month in Bully!, ending a much-needed three-month rest from the one-man ordeal of playing TR on a smash 10-city tour last spring. Bully! is Whitmore’s third straight solo hit, following Will Rogers’ USA and Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!, the Truman evocation that on film earned him a 1975 Oscar nomination.

The pace, confides Whitmore, is presidential. “One-person shows are devastating in terms of energy,” says the 56-year-old stage, screen and TV veteran of his two-and-a-half-hour Roosevelt portrayal. “Teddy himself was a vision of energy, so it requires even more from an actor playing him.” Audra, 53, sees it differently. “I would rather be out working and Jim would rather be at home with his books, plants and animals. It’s what all men must strive for,” she cracks, “to have the woman working so they can learn the pleasures of staying home.”

Their five-year marriage (the second for each) mingles their eight children, seven grandchildren and some 85 combined years in show business. When Whitmore is not touring with Bully! these days, he oversees the final touches on the Malibu Beach dream house they began building four years ago, or putters in what Audra calls his “truck farm”—a large garden atop a nearby borrowed cliff.

At the moment she is the chief breadwinner. In the past year she has set something of a TV record: She played three continuing sitcom roles on three different networks in one year. CBS’s Doc and NBC’s Fay were quick flops, but Three’s Company clicked so resoundingly as a summer sub that it’s been thrown against CBS’s perennial M*A*S*H this season. The show already has matched the popularity—and controversy—of her 1972 hit, Bridget Loves Bernie (she was Bridget’s dizzy mom), which was canned following objections to its sympathetic rendering of an interdenominational Catholic-Jewish marriage.

Will their separate careers breed marital discord? Whitmore has a ready reply (quoting Einstein): “When we were courting we decided I would make all major decisions and she would make all minor ones,” he says impishly. “It’s worked out very well—we’ve never had a major decision.”

Certainly Audra made one big decision early—she knew she wanted to be an actress at the age of 3. Born in Hollywood in 1924 to two movie bit players, Audra dropped out of Fairfax High at 15 and worked her way up from extra to stand-in to stunt double to Warner Bros, contract player before heading for Broadway.

Debuting with Julie Harris in 1948’s The Young and the Fair, Audra combined legit stage hits (Take Her, She’s Mine, Spofford) and live TV drama (Playhouse 90, Studio One) with rearing her three boys and two girls (now aged 24 to 32) by her first marriage, to Dr. Hardy Ulm, a New York urologist.

After divorce ended the 17-year marriage in 1960, Audra achieved perhaps her widest fame—until now—with what was supposed to be a brief 1964 guest appearance on the daytime soap Another World. She wound up starring for five years as the deliciously evil Liz Matthews. “Soaps are the ideal dramatic situation,” she says, “very slow and lifelike.”

Daytime drama is about the only dramatic medium that James Allen Whitmore has not attempted in his distinguished career. Born in White Plains, N.Y., Whitmore moved at an early age to Buffalo when his father became the city’s park commissioner. Jim was bitten by the acting bug as a teenager, but the theater was anathema to Whitmore’s well-bred family. Instead, young Whitmore was sent off to Choate and then to prelaw studies at Yale, where he played football and sang with the Whiffenpoofs. World War II arrived before graduation, however, and Marine Second Lieutenant Whitmore (he received his B.A. while in the service)saw action on Saipan and Tinian in the Marianas.

After the war Whitmore decided to try acting as “kind of a lark. I think it was always Clarence Darrow’s histrionics that had attracted me to the law anyway.” His first day in New York he landed a six-month USO tour of the same islands he had served on in the Marines. The military experience served him well, though, when his gritty protrayal of the sergeant in the 1949 classic film Battleground first won him national fame. Some 40 films followed, as well as three TV series. “The novelty of films was marvelous at first,” he now says, “but it wore off in a few minutes. Theater has always been my first love.”

He met Audra while playing a forgettable summer stock production in 1969. “It was love at first sight for me,” she says. “But I don’t think he really got the message for a couple of weeks.” Laughs Jim, “I’m slow.” Whitmore married his leading lady in 1972, after his 25-year marriage to Nancy Mygatt, a former theater publicity agent, ended in divorce. (Of their three sons, James, 29, was an actor in Baa Baa Black Sheep on NBC. Steven, 27, and Daniel, 25, are college students.)

Since their marriage Whitmore and Lindley have worked together on three more plays—the most recent a 1976 tour of The Magnificent Yankee. “We’re much more effective working together, but we’re totally opposite in our approach,” observes Jim. “I love rehearsal; she’s impatient with rehearsal. But when it’s all ready, I become bored.” Lindley has a simple explanation for their professional differences: “He worries more than I do, and my lack of worry about a play is disturbing to him.”

The same delicate balance exists at home. “I’m a good cook,” says Audra, “but I’m just not at my happiest in the kitchen.” Consequently, Jim cooks in crockpots and presides over outdoor barbecues. Domesticity aside, neither has ever considered giving up show business. Lindley is looking for more movies to add to her Taking Off and The Heartbreak Kid credits. “I don’t have a plan on this earth,” shrugs Whitmore. But then he adds with a bravado worthy of TR himself: “There’d better be life after death—I’ve got too much left to do.”