L.A.'S MOST VISIBLE Office Romance : When TV news co-anchors Jim Lampley and Bree Walker became a team off the air as well as on, tongues started wagging. What's it like to conduct a romance when so many people are watching?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When they arrived arm-in-arm at the Los Angeles Area Emmy Awards last May 20, a buzz swept through the startled crowd. Many people gawked. At least one man dropped his cocktail.

The worst-kept secret in local TV news was now out in public. With a simple show of togetherness, KCBS-TV co-anchors Bree Walker and Jim Lampley confirmed what their colleagues had been whispering for months: that while married to other people, the pair had become L.A.'s most visible office romance.

By all accounts, it started as a typical office affair: subtle and secret, sweet but sad, and, sometimes, scandalous. And, always, stuff for the in-house gossip mill. They held hands in empty hallways, stole kisses in the parking lot and fell in love.

What was different was that these were high-salaried TV personalities who worked side by side. Eventually, details of the affair spread throughout Southern California, and beyond. As anchors for the 5 and 11 p.m. newscasts in the nation's second biggest TV news market--and the most competitive--Walker, 36, and Lampley, 40, couldn't brush hands without gossip columnists reporting it, or without at least one letter to the editor complaining they were acting "like a couple of lovesick teen-agers."

And then last Oct. 30, KCBS took the unusual step of acknowledging the office romance in a terse press release: "KCBS-TV is pleased to announce that 'Action News' anchors Bree Walker and Jim Lampley will be married in April, 1990. No interviews will be granted."

What the press release didn't say was that the pair weren't yet divorced from their respective spouses.

Severing their 10-year marriages wasn't easy, given the three children, anchor-size salaries and emotions at stake. As recently as last Sunday, Lampley burst into tears when asked about the surprise 40th birthday party his wife threw him last spring, the family portrait she commissioned for him, and the 520 roses she sent him, one for every week of their marriage, in an apparent bid to get him back.

Now that Lampley's and Walker's divorces are final (his came through in January, hers in February), the couple plan a very private wedding April 7 at an Orange County resort hotel.

What effect, if any, will their marriage have on their newscasts' flat ratings? Married anchors are a rarity; married anchors who fall in love on air rarer still. Sure, local TV stations across the country spend millions creating the image that their news teams get along. But what happens when that on-air happy talk turns to real-life pillow talk? Will viewers start watching the "Action News" anchors or the action between the news anchors?

And, for that matter, how accountable are TV news stars to the public? Should they be regarded as role models, like professional athletes and elected politicians? Of course, their rewards are big, but so are the burdens. Consider the headlines about Liz Walker, the Boston anchorwoman who quietly had a baby out of wedlock. Or Jim Jensen, the New York anchorman who secretly battled addictions to cocaine and Valium. Or Max Robinson, the Chicago TV newsman who died of AIDS-related causes.

Maybe that's why Bree Walker's and Jim Lampley's hands are so tightly entwined as they talk for the first time about the relationship they say is "bigger than any job."

"What happened between us was so powerful, and had such a life of its own, that we recognized there would be no turning back," says Lampley, his voice trembling with nervousness. "But we weren't going to attempt to tailor our behavior from that point forward, according to the professional response of our colleagues. We hoped that people would be supportive--and they have."

"I thought it would certainly be an opportunity for us to find out who our friends were," the cooler Walker notes. "And although it still makes me really uncomfortable to think about people who might disapprove of it, because I'm concerned about that, this was so big that at last my heart took over."

KCBS Vice President and General Manager Robert Highland has denied published reports that management frowned on the Lampley-Walker liaison. And while sources say one "old-fashioned" employee in the newsroom openly disapproved and kept referring to the "adulterers," by all accounts the pair's friends and colleagues at the station seemed to be understanding.

"I didn't view the relationship as scandalous or in bad taste," says former KCBS early morning news anchor Jim Moret. "You have to respect people's private lives, and you have to respect their choices in personal relationships."

When Lampley arrived at KCBS in September, 1987, he was a bona fide TV star. Plucked to cover college football while still a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Lampley had enjoyed a 13-year tenure at ABC Sports as one of the nation's best-known sportscasters. After serving as KCBS sports director for a year, he became news anchor in August, 1988.

Colleagues describe Lampley as self-confident and charismatic. "There's definitely a charm about Jim," says Moret.

While Lampley stayed somewhat aloof from the newsroom staff, Walker was "one of those anchors who's relaxed enough to just be one of the guys," says an insider.

Hired by KCBS in October, 1988, she, too, was already a celebrity. While winning bicoastal acclaim during stints first as a news anchor with KGTV in San Diego from 1981 to 1987, and then with WCBS-TV in New York, until 1988, she became the first physically disabled anchorwoman to climb to the top of a profession known for putting a premium on cosmetic perfection. People magazine, ABC's "Good Morning America" and other media wrote of her rare hereditary disorder known as syndactylism, which causes severely deformed hands and feet.

As the replacement for anchorwoman Terry Murphy, Walker immediately moved into the desk next to Lampley's. Like any newsroom, KCBS' had "a lot of camaraderie," staffers say, because of the long and often odd hours. So, in the beginning, their office behavior was similar to that of any colleagues who work closely together--good-natured bantering that never seemed to get personal.

And colleagues didn't give a second thought that Lampley and Walker, like most anchors who work the same schedule, huddled in private conversation or took their dinner breaks together. "It was a chance to catch up on business, bitch about management, even exchange confidences," one staffer explains. "Because the person you work with the closest is the one who knows what's going on in your life."

And what was going on in their lives was personal heartache.

Like Walker, Lampley had married twice: first to his childhood sweetheart, then again in April, 1979, to Joanne, an exotic-looking brunette, former teacher and aspiring artist. Together the couple had two daughters--ages 10 and 3. But when Lampley took the KCBS job and moved from Manhattan to Los Angeles, Joanne and the girls didn't come along.

"She didn't want to move here. That seemed to be the real stumbling block," Murphy recalls. "He even spent time looking for a house for the family in Hancock Park."

Lampley didn't like to talk about his marital status. "Jim was a very private person. I didn't want to pry," Murphy adds. When other colleagues would ask where his family was, Lampley would respond diplomatically, "My wife is living in New York with our children." He never said they had actually separated. Notes Moret, "I never heard him use the 'S' word."

According to Lampley, his wife filed for divorce in March, 1988, changed her mind, and then filed again in October of that year. "All I can tell you is that what took place did so over a long period of time," Lampley relates. "When I came here it was my fondest and most heartfelt intention that my wife and family would come to California to live here with me. And I tried long and hard to make that a reality. And it didn't happen."

Friends say the separation was especially hard because Lampley was a "doting" father who "worshipped" his older daughter and regretted he didn't really know his younger one. "I've only lived in the same apartment with her for two or three months of her whole life," he notes.

Walker was a brand-new mother when she arrived at KCBS. She and her second husband, Robert Smith Walker, a 41-year-old independent film and video producer described as a quiet man with "off-beat Jack Nicholson" looks, had Andrea-Lyne Walker on Aug. 12, 1988. The couple were aware that any children they had would run a 50% chance of inheriting Bree's syndactalism, and Andrea-Lyne was born with the disorder.

Walker asked to be let out of her contract at WCBS in New York after only 14 months because her husband had found it difficult to move his free-lance production business from San Diego to New York. In one interview in 1988, Robert Walker acknowledged that he was traveling back and forth so much, "we'll have enough bonus air miles for a flight to Mars soon if this keeps up." Sources in San Diego, where Bree's parents have lived since 1982, also maintain that career tensions helped to create the couple's rift. For her part, Bree won't confirm or deny these reports.

"I will tell you that it was a long erosion that began many years ago," she says.

The first word that Lampley and Walker were "involved" came from Walker's old station, WCBS, in New York. By January or February of last year, the telephone lines between WCBS and KCBS suddenly heated up, with KCBS staff asking each other, "Do you think it's true?" The reason for the lag is not that "people in the newsroom were stupid or oblivious," one insider notes. "It's that New York is much more of a media gossip market. L.A.'s not as concerned about it."

Recalling this period, both Lampley and Walker describe their budding romance as a "mutually supportive working relationship that got better." And personal.

"Our schedules would never have allowed us to do anything as audacious as date," says Walker. "Which is why we could never get a handle on exactly when we went from friends to romantic partners because so much of the ebb and flow of this relationship is tied to our work.

"We are virtually unable to separate the two."

Lampley concedes: "We were probably in love with each other a long, long time before either of us could have recognized that or would have recognized that."

However, he acknowledges, "It wasn't until we had begun to conquer and sort out some of the details of those personal lives that we were able to look at each other and say, 'Gee, I think I'm in love with you.' "

Though she had already started divorce proceedings, Joanne threw a surprise 40th birthday party for her husband at the tony Beverly Hills restaurant Tribeca on March 26.

"Maybe shock would be a better word," Lampley says.

"Lampley's wife got wind of the relationship and decided that she didn't like the fact that he was seeing someone, especially someone famous like Bree whom she obviously knew from New York TV," one colleague maintains. "So she decided she wanted him back."

In the words of one of Lampley's friends, "She launched a full-scale attack."

First she told Lampley she was taking him to dinner in L.A. with Cheryl Tiegs and Tony Peck. Then she flew in their daughters and more than 20 close friends, including actresses Kathleen Turner and Diane Lane. Next, she invited some anchors from KCBS--Tritia Toyota, Steven Rambo, Chris Conaglia, and Bree Walker.

"I was unable to come because I had other things to do that weekend," Walker says.

Then Lampley's wife asked Joan Agajanian Quinn, then society columnist for the Herald-Examiner, to cover the event. Finally, Joanne presented her husband with a family portrait painted by Interview cover artist Richard Bernstein, who commanded a six-figure price for the painting.

According to Bernstein, who was at the party, Lampley looked hard at the portrait and "was trying to remember when the picture was taken. He knew he never posed for it." In fact, Bernstein had worked from two pictures Joanne had given him: one of herself and the children, and the other just of Jim. "I had to be edited in," says Lampley.

With that, the anchorman begins to weep.

(Much later, according to Bernstein, Joanne Lampley bought a copy of the portrait--but without Jim in it.)

In April, Joanne sent roses to Jim. Dozens and dozens of them carried into the newsroom by deliverymen, 520 in all. "They arrived on my 10th wedding anniversary, one rose for each of the 520 weeks of the marriage up to that point," Lampley explains.

He stares at the floor. "I couldn't possibly presume to comment as to what their intent was."

Walker was out of town taping one of her "People Magazine on TV" specials when the flowers arrived. "People didn't quite know what to make of it," recalls one former staffer. By all accounts, Lampley looked at the card, and, in a small voice, said, "Roses on me," and gave them to his colleagues.

On May 9, then Herald-Examiner gossip columnist Mitchell Fink published the first of what were to be many news flashes about the Lampley-Walker romance in Southern California newspapers.

"I never suspected that we could be a news item," recalls Walker. "I found it a little ridiculous. I felt that they must really be bored."

About this time, Walker's husband moved out of their Sherman Oaks apartment. Lampley, meanwhile, who had been living first in bachelor digs at the Oakwood Apartments in Toluca Lake and then in a funky downtown loft, told his friends that he and wife would not be reconciling.

"He said she wanted to move out here, but now it was too late. He didn't want her to," a friend recalls.

By the time of the Emmys, Lampley and Walker had decided to be together.

"I think it's fair to say we were ready at that point to confirm people's suspicions about whether we were behaving as a couple," says Lampley.

Walker, who was a presenter that evening, even made a joke at the podium that she had "developed this growing interest in sports."

Once their affair was out in the open, friends say the couple felt more relaxed. "I think on their part it was relief," notes one insider.

But, then, some goofy, even gushy, things started to happen on the air.

There was the time at the end of the 11 p.m. newscast that Walker chortled, "I love these guys," and hugged Lampley and Steve Rambo. The time that Lampley was reading a story about the world's richest men and looked at Walker and said, "Well, I don't make that much."

And Walker responded, "Oh, but I'll stay with you anyhow."

And, just recently, the time they were holding hands when the newscast started and didn't release until after the cameras were rolling.

Off the air, they purchased a home in Hollywood Hills. And they fretted about their respective divorces and financial settlements. "We had a small interpersonal wager on who would be able to take care of the legal details of this more rapidly," Lampley notes. "And I won."

While Walker has custody of her child, Lampley decided to let his two daughters remain in New York with their mother "because I worked 12-14 hour days and she doesn't," Lampley says. "Not living with my children is a problem for me. I have what I think of as a very close relationship with my daughters. And I anticipate continuing (that) close relationship. My ex-wife has been in my view generous, graceful and in every way forthcoming in helping me to maintain that relationship."

Lampley and Walker believe their off-air relationship has made their on-air one better. "We kind of know each other's rhythms better than we would otherwise," Walker maintains. "And to the extent that we know what the other one is thinking sometimes. When we do step on each other's lines, it's a natural thing. There's no sense of, 'Oh, I blew it. Now he's going to be mad.' There's a real simpatico."

However, KCBS newscasts are a distant third in the ratings and it remains to be seen what effect their marriage will have on viewership.

"I don't think it'll make a whit of difference," declares Walker.

One news executive at a rival L.A. station predicts it will have the effect of "a momentary blip" because of the curiosity factor.

Some of their present and past KCBS colleagues wonder whether the pair seem almost too comfortable together on the air. "My problem is I feel they're so enamored of each other that I am left out as a viewer," complains one former staffer. "You're excluded from the fun. And it's hard to feel a part of the newscast, which is frustrating."

Both Walker and Lampley are aware of the dangers of getting too personal during their newscasts, especially at times their scripts tell them to "ad-lib."

"There's certainly no preconceived aim to do that because I think it has the potential of excluding viewers a little bit," notes Lampley. "And what we really want to do is include viewers and welcome them in and talk to them rather than to talk to each other."

Walker adds that "knowing that CBS is a traditionally conservative entity, it's always been difficult to know when it was OK to talk about us."

Still, Walker resents having to talk about "us" at all.

"I don't think it has anything to do with my news-gathering abilities, or Jim's news-gathering abilities. And I don't believe that people are genuinely interested in it."

For the first time that afternoon, they unlock hands.

"I disagree with her," Lampley says. "I think people are interested in it. Whether fortunately or unfortunately, they most definitely are."

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