“I said no at first,” said JoBethWilliams. “Then I realized I couldn’t bear the idea of another actress playing the part. So I did it.”

The role she hesitated over was that of Diane Freeling, the harassed mother in that blockbuster creepy “Poltergeist"--a movie some people found as frightening as “The Exorcist.” It was when a sequel was pitched to her that she found herself dithering.

“I turned it down without reading the script,” she said this week. “But then I found myself becoming proprietary about the role and friends began telling me they’d be interested to see what happened to that family.”

“Poltergeist II,” opening here May 23, picks up four years after the first movie left off. The Freeling family is living with Diane’s mother when--guess what?--those awful entities start dropping by again.

“It’s by the same writers (Michael Grais, Mark Victor) as the first one,” said Williams. “So it’s really scary. I think it will be highly successful.”


Like other actresses today, Williams tries to work in serious projects as well as hits (she’s been in four: “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Stir Crazy,” “Poltergeist,” “The Big Chill”). So she hopes that a small movie she made with Jon Voight and Ellen Barkin, “Desert Bloom,” will find its audience.

This movie, which originated at the Sundance Institute and just opened in New York to rave reviews, has as its background the first atom bomb test in the desert outside Las Vegas. This was a time when local people gave “bomb parties” and gathered excitedly in groups to watch the mushroom cloud.

“Eugene Corr wrote and directed it,” said Williams, “and it’s a fine script--about a 13-year-old girl growing up with her family in the Nuclear Age.

“It’s great fun to be in a movie like ‘Poltergeist II,’ but the joy of acting is doing something like ‘Desert Bloom.’ I hope it does well.” (No date has yet been set for an L.A. opening.)

Williams, who recently appeared at the Kennedy Center with Stacy Keach in Robert Sherwood’s “Idiot’s Delight,” directed by Peter Sellars, has now started working with a group of L.A.-based actors--among them Richard Dreyfuss, Amy Irving, Marsha Mason, John Lithgow--who have formed the L.A. Classic Theaterworks.

“There are about 20 of us,” she said, “actors who love the theater but whose schedules often make it hard for them to do plays. So we’ve rented space in Culver City and we’re putting together programs. I think Los Angeles is ready for something like this. So are we.”

NEW VENTURE: What’s this? The actor who gave Deanna Durbin her first screen kiss announcing he’s going to do “La Cage aux Folles” on Broadway.

Can it be true?

It can. And Robert Stack can hardly wait. Of course you have to be of a certain age to remember who Deanna Durbin was (the stunning singing star of “Three Smart Girls” who packed it all in and retired to France).

But most people know Stack’s work--particularly TV viewers who remember him as G-man Eliot Ness in the highly successful series “The Untouchables.”

He flew to New York this week for costume fittings for the role of Georges--the part Gene Barry was forced to relinquish when he suffered a mild heart attack. Stack opens June 17.

“It should be great fun,” he said before leaving. “Actually, they asked me to do it a year or so ago but at the time I was tied up with a TV project and had to say no. Then when Gene--who’s an old chum from TV’s ‘The Name of the Game'--got sick, they asked me again.”

Stack, who’s signed a three-month contract for the show, doesn’t seem particularly nervous about singing on stage for the first time.

“Perhaps because it’s such an ensemble show,” he said, “and after all I’ve been in quite a few musicals, like ‘Meet Mr. Music’ and ‘A Date With Judy.’ I even sang in one NBC special.”

Stack has a musical heritage. His uncle Richard Bonelli was a baritone with the Metropolitan Opera and his grandfather toured with Nellie Melba.

“My mother took me to France when I was a kid, to study opera,” he said. “That’s where I learned to speak French--which was my first language.”

Indeed he is one of the few Hollywood names to have made a movie in French--"Day of Delinquents,” starring with Jean Gabin. “But I won’t attempt a French accent for ‘La Cage,’ ” he said. “I think that’s a turnoff.”

QUOTE--from George Hamilton: “While I love women, I am more amused by them than I am involved with them. The minute you become involved with a woman, you have a lot of troubles.”