Best Ex'es : James Farentino and Michele Lee draw on their past for dramatic movie


Michele Lee and James Farentino had a stormy 15-year marriage. Their divorce, however, has been a rousing success.

Lee, best known as Karen MacKenzie on CBS' long-running soap "Knots Landing," and Farentino, who starred in the short-lived ABC comedy "Julie," divorced 11 years ago. Their marriage produced a son, David, now 23.

For the first time since their marriage ended when they decided their lives had gone in different directions, Lee and Farentino teamed again professionally for the CBS Sunday movie "When No One Would Listen." Lee is also executive producer.

Based on a true story, the harrowing drama finds Farentino playing Lee's abusive husband. Their son has a small part in the film as a neighbor who also becomes a victim of Farentino's wrath.

During a recent interview on a crisp Saturday morning at Lee's home in Westwood, the two appeared to be the best of friends.

"We are family," said Lee, who has been married to television producer and network executive Fred Rappoport since 1987. "I think we really feel that we are family."

"There is a closeness that we never lost," Farentino said, glancing over at his ex-wife. "We were together so long. We grew up together and we came out here (from Broadway) together."

"I met him when I was 20, and when you are 20 you are a kid," said Lee, who was starring on Broadway in the award-winning musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," when they met in 1963.

"This is a relationship that has lasted," Farentino said. "If you deny that relationship and that love, then what was 18 years about and what was your child about and what are you about?"

Lee said one of the reasons they have remained close friends is that they never "disliked" each other, even during the painful period of their separation.

"Separating and going through that period of time brings out all sorts of emotions," she said. "It is not very pleasant to go through for anybody. OK? But he knew that there would never be a time that I would do anything to hurt him. I knew he would never do anything to hurt me intentionally."

"We didn't beat each other up in terms of settlement," said Farentino, who was briefly married before Lee to actress Elizabeth Ashley and had a short-lived marriage to actress Debrah Farentino in the mid-'80s to "cover up pain" from his divorce with Lee.

Lee said their amicable divorce has been "hard work," but wishes more couples could remain friendly.

"We had to go through whatever we had to go through to separate and work out our problems and remain friends and be strong for the family," Lee said. "Let's face it, in our world today, look at the divorce rate. There are many, many children who have parents divorcing. I feel lucky."

The two, who appeared on TV and in stage together while they were married, have been looking for several years for a project. "If we were going to do something, we wanted it to be challenging and something that would whet our appetites as actors as well," Lee said.

Divorced acting couples working together is nothing new in Hollywood. William Powell and Carole Lombard appeared in the classic comedy "My Man Godfrey" after their marriage was over. Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor starred in the thriller "The Night Walker" more than a decade after they were divorced. Probably the most-publicized reunion was when twice-married and twice-divorced Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton toured the country in the Noel Coward comedy "Private Lives."

Both Lee and Farentino said as rewarding as "When No One Would Listen" was, it was a difficult shoot because of the intensity of the subject matter, as well as their history together. In several scenes, Farentino is seen brutalizing Lee.

"We had done some very good work together, mostly light comedy," Farentino said. "Here's possibly the heaviest thing we have done together and possibly the heaviest thing I ever had done in terms of the violence and the illness of the man himself."

Farentino said he found playing the part so hard, "because there were feelings we never experienced (in our marriage) in terms of the violence, which was very scary because I adore her so much. I had to dig deep down. But it was cathartic."

Lee recalled the two had a heart-to-heart discussion before the filming started. "Jim said this is going to be very painful for us," she said. "Not that we were always dealing with each other, but there are certain things there for us because we had a history. On one level it becomes very easy, on another level it becomes much more difficult."

"When I say, 'I love you' on the screen as the character," Farentino added, "I am truly saying that. I am a person saying that to someone I truly love. That is why the work was so hard--it is not really acting."

"When No One Would Listen" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS . "Knots Landing" airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on CBS.

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