AVE AVA: A MAVERICK'S HOMECOMING

"Nobody's going to offer me another job after this, I promise you. I look like hell among those babies. . . ."

Ava Gardner is back in town, still the same cynical, irreverent Ava, 62 years old now, not looking like hell at all, looking, in fact, very elegant and striking.

Talking with her in the past, she has often seemed nervous and ill at ease. Interviews, for her, are the 20th-Century equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition. Her private life, she feels, belongs to her, a quaint, old-fashioned notion she has never abandoned.

Why should she tell you about her marriage to Frank Sinatra, she argues. So you know what? She doesn't.

But now and again, she is prepared to sit down over a quiet drink and exchange pleasantries--just as long as there isn't a tape recorder in sight. "I'd rather be slightly misquoted than have to sit in front of a tape recorder," she says, sitting back in a booth in a Hollywood restaurant, chewing gum and seemingly unaware that she is being stared at by every woman in the place.

It should come as no surprise. She is a rare enough visitor from her London home to merit curiosity. And she is, after all, a genuine, oceangoing survivor of the big-star era.

She doesn't enjoy being looked at.

"I never know how to react," she told me once. "The right way is the way Bette Davis does it. I saw her in a hotel in Madrid once and went up to her and said: 'Miss Davis, I'm Ava Gardner and I'm a great fan of yours'. And you know, she behaved exactly as I wanted her to behave. 'Of course you are, my dear,' she said. 'Of course you are.' And she swept on."

But being recognized has its compensations. And she knows it. Once, returning to her New York hotel at 4 in the morning after a party, she was unable to find a taxi. Along came a garbage truck. "Hey, Ava," the men yelled. "Wanna lift?" "Sure would," she said, and they drove her back to her hotel in the truck. Grateful, she invited them up to her suite for a drink. A little while later, the night manager called and said, "Miss Gardner, would you mind asking your friends to move their vehicle from our front entrance?"

The memory makes her smile.

What brings her to Los Angeles is a series of appearances in the CBS-TV nighttime soap, "Knots Landing." In this, she plays Ruth Sumner Galveston, who tries to force her stepson (William Devane; "Devani," she pronounces it) to take over the family business. The whole experience, she said, has made her very nervous.

"Scared out of my wits. Joining a bunch of young people who've been together for some time. One day, I was so nervous I couldn't remember my lines, not at all. That was embarrassing. And usually when I'm filming, I stay as close to the director as possible. He's the key. But on these shows, they change every week. You just get to know one and then he's gone."

Of course, she has always been nervous as an actress. Often, while filming, she will chew on a mint to keep her mouth from drying up. "Sometimes in scenes it looks as if I've got a loose tooth rolling around," she chuckles. "You look."

The first episode in which she will be recognizable is on Feb. 28, although she will be seen as a "shadowy" figure the week before. The idea of being seen in such a way seems to amuse her. There has never been anything shadowy about Ava Gardner.

So she is the mother of William Devane. A little young for that, surely?

"I'm usually too young for my mother roles," she says, lighting a cigarette. "I was too young to be Omar Sharif's mother in 'Mayerling' (the 1969 remake), but they cast me just the same. I'm a mother again in 'AD,' " she added, referring to the NBC miniseries she made in Tunisia about a year ago. "Nero's mother. But Anthony Andrews plays Nero, so that's not so bad. . . ."

For a moment, she continues to chew gum and smoke her cigarette. Is that easy to do?

"Yes," she says, continuing to do it.

She has been here about a month and she confesses that she misses London already. She lives there in an elegant and beautifully furnished apartment in Kensington, close enough to Hyde Park to walk her dog.

"London's a good place for me to live," she says. "I have to stay out of the sun now. If I get any sun on my skin, it comes out in spots, spots even makeup won't hide. It happened first in Barbados, a while back. Now I have to be careful.

"I love London. Though the other day, when I was walking somewhere and it began pouring with rain, I did think I should have taken all the movies they offered me when I was in my 30s and 40s--then I could have been driving in a Rolls-Royce. . . ."

Had she turned down many films?

"A lot. But I had to. The business was beginning to drive me crazy."

What films had she said no to?

"Oh, I don't know. 'Sweet Bird of Youth' . . . 'The Graduate' . . . a lot. I even went on suspension so I wouldn't have to do 'Love Me or Leave Me' (which Doris Day did). I don't remember why I turned that one down. Maybe I was having a love affair at the time."

She pauses as if daring you to ask, "With whom?" But you don't.

"I did some silly things," she goes on. "When I was living in Spain (she went there in the 1950s), I was offered a fortune to do a soap commercial. A fortune. I said, 'Not unless you give me a Rolls-Royce too.' Finally they came back. 'OK,' they said, 'we'll give you a Rolls-Royce as well.' Still I said no. Wasn't that crazy?"

But now she'd said yes to "Knots Landing." Who had convinced her to do that?

"My business manager," she says with a throaty chuckle.

The power of television here continues to surprise her.

"But it's getting to be the same in London," she says. "Everyone seems to be mad about shows like 'Dynasty.' I'd arranged to take a woman friend of mine to see Frank's (Sinatra's) last concert in London, and at the last minute she called it off; she said she didn't feel well. That wasn't it at all, I found out afterwards. She wanted to stay home and watch 'Dynasty.' "

For many years after she quit Hollywood, she lived in Spain. She enjoyed it too, particularly Madrid, which is a late-night city. "When the sun sets, I feel more alert," she told me once. "I was born at 10 at night; maybe that has something to do with it." But when she decided to move on, she wasn't sure where to go, so she put her furniture from Spain in storage in New York. Finally, she settled on London.

Taking the furniture out of storage?

"No. That furniture has been in storage for almost 20 years now. Isn't that ridiculous? Now I'm going to fly to New York and take a look at it and sell it. Some of it I don't even remember."

By mid-April, she will be back in London, the one great city in which she feels truly comfortable--and at home.

"You know what?" she asks, finishing her drink. "The other day, I received a letter addressed simply to 'Ava Gardner, Hyde Park, London.' And some character at the Post Office had scrawled across the envelope: 'Which bench?' "

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