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Those Eyes : Six Years Ago Linda Evans Was Considered Too Old to Cast. Today, She’s Made Maturity a Sexy Commodity

<i> Bettijane Levine is The Times fashion editor. </i>

Is there anyone who doesn’t like Linda Evans? Probably. But people who know about such things can’t think of who that might be. Gossip columnists, producers, paparazzi, extras on the “Dynasty” set, for mer stepchildren, costume designers and just plain folks who have seen her around all claim she’s “the nicest gal in town.”

Then you get to Evans, on the “Dynasty” set, her eyes twinkling the same shade of blue as the sequins on her Nolan Miller gown. And even she admits she’s “good.” That’s partly because Hollywood’s hottest television blonde has learned “never to focus on negatives.” Positives are her thing. What’s most positive is that, each week, 100 million people in 90 countries watch Evans play the beautiful, virtuous wife of Blake Carrington and wish they could either marry her, look like her, dress like her or at least help her find a real-life Mr. Right--someone to deliver the saintly star from her well-publicized childless, husbandless plight.

Failing that, they can at least vote her “the best-looking woman in America” (People magazine, April, 1985) or one of “America’s 10 most beautiful women” (Harper’s Bazaar, September, 1985) or “the new blonde image of the 1980s” (an independent research poll for Clairol). They can buy magazines with her face on the cover (Harper’s Bazaar, Saturday Evening Post, McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal) and purchase the products she represents (Forever Krystle perfume, the Dynasty line of clothes, Crystal Light soft drinks, Ultress hair color).

What female Evans fans want to do most, it seems, is help. “They phone and write, offering to fix her up on dates,” an Evans associate says, adding that Evans is probably the female TV star “best liked by women.”

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Evans admits that hundreds of females write her, offering to “lend their husbands or boyfriends if I need an escort. They know I’m single and they trust me with their men.” Evans, however, doesn’t act like she needs help.

Sure, she’s nice. And kind. In fact, on her way to be interviewed, she offers to help an elderly delivery man carry his heavy carton up the steps. (He declines.) And she’s strong. Between takes she’s often on the telephone, instructing heaven-knows-whom about buying and selling heaven-knows-what.

“I’m into everything,” Evans says, declining to explain what “everything” is.

Her personal goal right now, she says, is “freedom.” It’s obvious that life as a superstar and pitchwoman doesn’t allow her much of that. And in case anyone is about to whip off yet another post card offering Evans yet another date, it should be noted that the actress is “very much involved” with L.A. businessman Richard Cohen but denies rumors that they’ll marry.

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Women may feel trust, but men feel lust. “Dynasty” co-creator and co-executive producer Esther Shapiro remembers the time “a bunch of us sat around watching dailies, and Linda came in wearing this extraordinary flimsy blue lounging thing. When we saw her, there was an audible gasp--an involuntary thing that physically happened to the men present. It was a moment I’ll never be able to forget.”

Evans’ brand of sex appeal apparently sizzles right through the small screen into some very upscale living rooms. Shapiro explains: “There are men in high political places, tycoons and men of power--I can’t reveal their names--who watch the show and send her flowers or call and ask to meet her. These are power people, men who are into owning things, and she’s obviously something they’d like to own. Knowing Linda, that’s the one thing to which she wouldn’t respond.”

Evans modestly asserts that she can’t remember any of the high-and-mighty types to whom Shapiro refers. The reason she can’t remember, she explains, is that “it doesn’t really matter. They don’t want me; they want Krystle.” And Evans understands too well the difference between a TV character and that person in real life.

On Nov. 18 she will be 43 years old. For most of those years she was neither rich, well known nor on the A list for parties. In fact, an industry insider confides that as recently as six years ago, Evans was turned down for parts, including one in “Dallas,” because people thought she was too old.

Her parents were dancers. And her not-so-well-off family was even less so after her father died of cancer, while Evans was at North Hollywood High. She entered show business via commercials and struggled along until her stint as Barbara Stanwyck’s daughter on “The Big Valley,” from 1965 to 1969.

When Evans married her childhood idol, John Derek (16 years her senior), she all but disappeared from view. She has since told interviewers that he didn’t want her to work, except with him. She has also repeatedly, and incongruously, praised that marriage in interviews, once confiding to a reporter from Orange Coast magazine:

“One night I came home to a roomful of candles. John had moved a mattress in front of a roaring fire in the living room and had furs spread on top. Champagne and grapes dipped in egg whites and dusted in sugar were nearby. It was marvelous.”

Maybe so, from the viewpoint of a then-love-struck Evans, who was raised a Catholic and who valued nothing as much as a marriage with lots of romance and lots of kids. But the couple did not have children, and in her 30s, after 10 professionally dull years with Derek, she became the woman he jilted for a 16-year-old named Bo.

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John Derek’s daughter by a previous marriage, Sean, saw the Evans-Derek union from a different viewpoint:

“She may not have had her own kids, but she certainly wasn’t spared the ordeal of having his. My brother and I didn’t know my father at all when he married Linda,” Sean Derek says. “Linda literally introduced us to him and helped us have a relationship. . . . My brother became a quadriplegic. When that happened, I saw her be supportive right out of a ‘Dynasty’ script. . . . I know it sounds corny, but she really believes in the good in the universe, and she always tries to do the good and right thing.” They are still close, she adds, while “I haven’t seen my father in the last six years.”

Evans soon married L.A. Realtor Stan Herman, but it lasted only three years. So now the clock was ticking. Evans had no children, no husband, no big career.

Shapiro recalled recently that until five or six years ago, Evans was “by her own admission a day player. . . . She did ‘Hunter,’ but after that it was just episodic television.” And Shapiro acknowledges that before “Dynasty,” many considered Evans too old to cast.

What has happened in the interim to change the public perception of female sex appeal as it relates to age? Nobody knows for sure.

But by portraying a vulnerable, loving, strong, sexy, mature woman in one of the campiest soaps on TV--and by having a similar off-screen persona to boot--Evans has proved that sex appeal does not vanish when crow’s feet and laugh lines appear. She has made maturity a sexy commodity, and she has done it without militancy, without face lifts, even without great acting skill.

When “Dynasty” executive producer Aaron Spelling was asked whether Evans could act, he paused and answered: “She has great windows.” Windows? “That was Sam Goldwyn’s word for eyes, and Linda has the greatest eyes in TV.” Yes, but can she act? “All I can tell you,” Spelling persisted, “is that when she’s in a scene, we never worry. We have a saying on the set, ‘When in doubt, cut to Linda.’ ”

Ask Linda about “windows” and she smiles, pointing to her eyes. “But look, I have wrinkles!”

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Ask how she maintains her voluptuous, 5-foot-8, 123-pound figure (size 10 on top, 6 on bottom) and she’ll report that she works out, but “women my age don’t have the figures of younger women.”

Ask about her hair and she admits that she colors it blond. In fact, Evans’ relaxed approach to her looks, her age, her success and her failures probably accounts for much of her sex appeal. She knows who she is.

“I represent several important issues,” Evans says. “I am older, attractive, single and good. I’m one of the first women to say you’re not too old for anything at 40. I’ve gone through some incredible tests and come out on top. There are millions out there who can relate to that.”

Money, which she now has plenty of, has only made her more aware that “what money represents is independence. That’s all it can buy.”

How does she feel about growing old? “You don’t grow old until your dreams die--and then you age from the inside out. I still have plenty of dreams.” Name one, she’s asked. “Well,” she says, somewhat shyly, “I haven’t had a baby yet.”


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