October 08, 1990 12:00 PM

When Shari Belafonte first saw the film script for Murder by the Numbers, she turned it down with a quick goodbye. Then director Paul Leder asked her to read a scene with Sam Behrens, the onetime General Hospital heartthrob who was signed to play the movie’s male lead. “I’m there to say, ‘No, thanks,’ ” recalls Belafonte, “but after I met Sam, I said, ‘We start Monday?’ ”

The 1989 movie, a low-budget whodunit, hit the dumper faster than yesterday’s sushi (“It premiered on a 747,” says Behrens). For its stars, however, “safe flirting” on the set quickly turned into “major lust” off-camera, says Shari.

And so here they now sit, on the sun-smacked patio of their San Fernando Valley home, flashing matching heart rings and lost in cuddly hugs and dewy looks. It’s a hot, bee-buzzing day by their pool, but Behrens and Belafonte seem not to notice.

“The right half of his lower lip dips down a little bit, so when he smiles it’s a little crooked,” she purrs happily.

“I feel like a whole chunk of my life has been filled in,” says he, beaming like a TV test pattern.

Married last December in a beachside ceremony in Barbados, the couple have much to grin about. Behrens, a 40-ish former Wrangler Man jeans model, is starting his second season as one of TV’s viler villains, the sociopathic, wife-beating rapist, Danny Waleska, on CBS’s Knots Landing. He’s also completing a star turn in an upcoming family film titled New Man. Belafonte, 36, the former Julie Gillette on ABC’s Hotel, is now flexing pecs as a TV spokeswoman for Bally’s health spas and hits the big screen herself this month, co-starring in the Roger Moore spy spoof Fire, Ice and Dynamite.

But bliss has had its price. Shari was still wed to film executive Bob Harper when she met Behrens, and Hollywood tabloids wasted no time pumping out BELAFONTE DUMPS HUSBAND FOR SOAP STAR headlines. “That wasn’t how it went down. Bob and I were on the outs, and Sam expedited it,” counters Shari. “It took me 30 years to come to the realization that I’m not on Earth for somebody else. Sam was the first thing that came into my life that I said, ‘Forget what everybody else says—I want that, and I’m gonna have it.’ When I found Sam, it was like, “Gimme, gimme, gimme!’ ”

As a child growing up in Washington, D.C., she had found it different, says Shari. “I suffered from a great deal of low self-esteem for a long time,” she recalls. “I did a lot of things to get attention—magazine covers, Hotel—I mean, a lot of that was not about stuff I wanted to do as much as it was stuff that I thought I ‘should’ do and what I thought would get attention from Mom and Dad.”

Dad, of course, is Harry Belafonte, 63, the calypso crooner and civil rights activist; Mom is Frances Margurite Mazique, 64, a Washington child psychologist and longtime community leader. As parents, says Shari, they were simultaneously inattentive and demanding, promoting rivalry among her and her siblings: half-brother David, now 32; half-sister Gina, 28; and sister Adrienne, 40. According to Shari, daddy Harry was “very pressuring,” causing her to grow “really hard on myself….Every time something good happened, I assumed it was an accident and not something I deserved credit for.” Her parents divorced when she was 2 (within a month Harry married dancer Julie Robinson), and Shari spent most of her young years shuttling between her parents. Then at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, she met fellow student Bob Harper. They married four days after graduating and moved to L.A., where Shari landed a gofer job at the Hanna Barbera animation studios (“I answered Fred Flintstone’s mail”). Grabbed for a Vogue cover by photographer Richard Avedon, she stepped up to TV movies, commercials and even recorded two LPs. A 1982 TV ad she had done for Calvin Klein jeans caught the attention of Hotel’s producers, and a five-year run on the series followed.

Meanwhile, in New York City, the Brooklyn-born Behrens had graduated from the family’s catering business and post-high school waitering jobs to act on Broadway (as a cast member of Grease) and on the soaps (Ryan’s Hope and General Hospital), His first marriage, to a dancer, came in his mid-20s and ended, he says, because of his own immaturity (“I wasn’t ready”). Marriage No. 2, to actress Dale Kristien (now starring in the L.A. production of The Phantom of the Opera), was an “abominable mistake” that collapsed in 1987 after two years.

Behrens now credits Eastern philosophy readings and his onetime involvement in Werner Erhard’s est self-esteem seminars for helping him over those humps. Shari, in turn, credits Sam for her newfound happiness: “”He’s taught me it’s all about having a good time. For years it wasn’t. It was about being seen and doing your best job at acting so that you don’t get laughed at and people don’t call up and say how horrible you were, and your parents don’t start telling you how much better your siblings are.”

Although the couple now coo happily about “great sex” and shared interests, including daily workouts at the home gym, Belafonte at first found Behrens a reluctant lover. Her marriage ties may have frayed, “but he said, ‘Look, you’ve been married for 11 years. You’ve got to work this out with your husband.’ ” His resolve didn’t last long. Says Behrens: “It was like, ‘What are you, nuts? How often do you get to feel this kind of pain in your life? It only happens a couple of times. Just go with it.’ So I did.”

At that point Belafonte told her husband all, then suggested to him that she could maintain her romance with Behrens as well as her marriage. When Harper insisted, not surprisingly, that she break off the relationship with Behrens, “it was an opening of doors,” says Belafonte. “I realized that segment of my life had come to a completion.”

In July 1988 she and Harper legally separated, and the following year she moved into Behrens’s Studio City condo. Last year in April, at a South Carolina shopping mall, he slipped her a ruby engagement ring surrounded by 51 diamonds (“one for every year we’ll be married,” she says confidently). Six months after their Barbados wedding, they repeated their vows under a California moon in front of 150 friends.

Now nestled in the chic, four-bedroom ranch-style home in Sherman Oaks, Calif., that Shari and her first husband once occupied, they share their half-acre grounds with two Brittany spaniels, a golden retriever and three pet birds. Kids would be nice, both of them say, but so far they haven’t had any luck. “Not for lack of trying,” notes Shari, who says they’re now seeing doctors in search of a remedy.

With her own parents, “Harry is not Robert Young, and Margurite is definitely not Donna Reed,” Shari admits, but she says she’s reached a rapprochement. Her mother concurs. “I think we are closer now,” says Margurite. “She seems happier to me than ever before in her life.”

Ever together, Shari and Sam are now appearing onstage in an L.A. production of Tamara, a murder mystery. “Sam doesn’t have the fear of failure,” she says of her hubby. “It’s a lesson that’s taken me so long to learn.”

Responds Behrens: “I would always say life is simple, and she would say life is complex. And I think she will agree that life is simple now. I think that was a major point for the good guys.” Then, turning to Shari with one last huggy-bear squeeze, he chirps, “Whaddaya think?”

—Cynthia Sanz, John Griffiths in Los Angeles

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