By Marjorie Rosen
Updated February 22, 1993 12:00 PM

ORSON BEAN DIDN’T EXACTLY POP THE question to his bride-to-be, Alley Mills—in fact, he never even asked it. What he did, last October, when the couple were on a flight from Michigan to Los Angeles, was to toss a little black box containing a diamond ring onto her lap. “Orson told me, ‘It’s unconditional,’ ” recalls Mills, 41, who plays Norma, the dutiful mother in the ABC series The Wonder Years. “He said, ‘If you don’t want to wear it, put it in a drawer. If you want to consider it an engagement ring, that’s up to you.’ ” She put it on, she says, “immediately”—much to the delight of her 64-year-old lover, still best known as a panelist on such Golden Age of TV game shows as To Tell the Truth. “I knew it was the only way I was going to snare Alley—to trick her—and it worked,” says Bean, currently the crusty shopkeeper Loren Bray on CBS’s Doctor Quirin, Medicine Woman. The couple will wed at Mills’s Los Angeles home on April 18, a week after Easter, because, says Bean, their union is “sort of a rebirth.”

The truth is that until they met last March, neither was burning up the track romantically. Mills, who has never married, says she has had only three pre-Bean relationships in the last dozen years (each lasted two years) and none since her amicable 1991 breakup with actor David Birney (Bridget Loves Bernie). “Most Hollywood men are too vain and shallow for me,” she says. Bean has had two marriages (to actress Jacqueline de Sibour in 1956 and fashion designer Carolyn Maxwell in 1965) and four children (Michelle, 32, a furniture designer and mother; Max, 25, a student; Susannah, 23, a former talent agent; and Zeke, 21. a student). He and Maxwell even had what he refers to as an open relationship. But since their 1979 divorce, he claims to have stayed celibate—and serene. “I was never going to get involved again,” he says. “Just when I was the happiest ever, I met Alley.” Now, as the pair snuggle on a plump beige sofa in Mills’s cozy home, they recall the careful pace of their 11-month romance. “He was an old-fashioned courter,” says Mills, who met Bean in L.A. when she and her mother, former American Heritage magazine editor Joan Kerr, 72, went to a play in which he was appearing. Mills had some friends in the cast, and afterward they all went out for drinks. A week later Bean called, and on their first date, she says, “He brought flowers and put on a lie. I was very moved.” Later on, Bean adds, “She would ask me in. and we would neck, then I’d say, ‘I’m going home,’ and she would look at me funny. I wailed a while.” “Quite a while,” says Mills, who notes that they didn’t sleep together for two months.

Despite such restraint, their courtship hasn’t I been all smooth sailing. One reason. Mills admits, was her fear that “if we got too close, then he might leave, and I couldn’t handle it.” Early on. she told Bean that “at some point I’d probably tell him to leave and wouldn’t mean it.” Sure enough, one day, she says, “I threw a tantrum. I screamed, ‘Get out!’ ” He left, and she phoned that evening and apologized. Bean, meanwhile, con losses that he has never come to terms with the suicide of his mother when he was 15. About a month ago, he says, he had a vision of Alley lying in a pool of blood and attributes it to anxiety over loving her “on a deep level that I haven’t known since I was a little boy with my mother.”

One thing Bean and Mills don’t seem troubled by is the 23-year difference in their ages. “What are you going to do?” says Mills. “Not be with him?” Besides, insists Bean’s friend and onetime To Tell the Truth costar, actress Kitty Carlisle Hart, 77, “Orson is so young in spirit.”

The Mills-Bean wedding is shaping up as a decidedly funky affair. The day before, they are planning a cook-out for 200 in the backyard of Bean’s Venice, Calif., beach house. At the ceremony, the bride, in an antique wedding dress, and the groom, in his one good dark suit, will exchange vows they have written themselves. Then they and their 60 best friends will dine on their favorite meal, meat loaf and mashed potatoes. “I used to picture myself as the old guy eating the Early Bird Specials in the mall,” says an ebullient Bean. Now, at least, it will be comfort food à deux.


JULIE KLEIN in Los Angeles