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Sisters’ Paths Cross in Kitchen : Hollywood Vets Team Up After Disparate Careers

Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times

In Hollywood, each is privately admired as among the most successful at what she does--Tracy Roberts for teaching and directing, and Ann Marcus for producing and writing.

Yet few know that these influential and altogether disparate industry women, one largely in theater and the other largely in TV, are soul sisters who happen to be real sisters.

Now, in one of the few times in their long careers, with Roberts directing and Marcus executive-producing, they have collaborated on a stage play in Roberts’ theater. Their gastronomically satiric “The Art of Dining” cooks up real aromatic dishes among three sets of elitist diners in the simmering comedy by Tina Howe at the Tracy Roberts Theatre in West Hollywood. (The show is also accompanied by a dinner-theater option at the nearby La Cajole Cafe in the Hotel Sofitel, where the atmosphere competes with the play’s.)

Roberts and Marcus grew up on the wrong side of the tracks as sisters Tracy and Ann Goldstone in Little Falls, N. Y., where the old Erie Canal and the Mohawk River merge upstate (or what Roberts derisively calls “pure Babbitt country where ours was the only Jewish family allowed to join the country club”). They appeared for their interview looking sharp and slender in their working clothes, both with pants stuffed into their boots. Tracy arrived with her pet Irish setter of indeterminate age. “I lie about his age,” she quipped.

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Both widowed, they give “middle age,” like a tuning fork, the sound of chimes.

In the past, brother and sister tandems seemed to play a bigger part in Hollywood success stories than they do now. Hollywood is full of lore about siblings who came West to get into show business and found fame--Joan and Constance Bennett, the Marx Brothers, the Warner Brothers, Charlie and Sydney Chaplin, James and John Belushi, Fred and Adele Astaire. The list is endless.

Roberts and Marcus came west too, from New York City in the ‘50s. But not as an act, nor as rivals. In fact, given their different talents, they’ve been remarkably symbiotic, attributing several achievements to each other. Tracy produced Marcus’ first play, “A Woman’s Place,” in 1960 at the Desilu Playhouse, a pre-women’s movement play about a housewife like Ibsen’s heroine Nora. It landed Marcus an agent and writing jobs on “Peyton Place.”

Later, TV producer Marcus got Roberts her first TV directing job and thus into the Directors Guild of America. Earlier, Roberts had introduced Marcus to Marcus’ late husband, Ellis Marcus, who launched his wife’s writing career with the soaps “Days of Our Lives” and “Search for Tomorrow.” And after the sisters moved to Hollywood, Roberts nursed Marcus through a deadly cancer that almost killed her.

What’s unusual about Roberts and Marcus is that neither has fallen under the shadow of the other; each has staked out impressive territory from opposite sides of the footlights. And, in the clubby nature of the entertainment industry, they know everybody.

Drop a name from Roberts’ past, say, the legendary Lee Strasberg, and she’ll spin horror stories about Strasberg as a Method teacher--"he nearly destroyed me; I couldn’t take the way he made you dredge up things that made you want to go home and throw up.”

On the other hand, her own teaching is influenced by Strasberg: “I tell my students to use things that feed them; I don’t want them to get into heavy things that use them.”

Drop a name from Roberts’ sea of acting buddies, say, Tina Louise, and you’re likely to hear an ingenuous “had lunch with her last week.” Anais Nin? A dear friend, too, in fact another of Roberts’ remarkable mentors, whose book inscription she proudly produces: “For T--Who is all the women I ever wrote about and not according to men’s patterns.”

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As the writer in the family (along with screenwriter-producer brother Raymond Goldstone), Marcus casts a side glance at Roberts and softly remarks: “Tracy was the first child in the family--willful and beautiful.”

Acclaimed as a veteran acting teacher through her Tracy Roberts Studio on the edge of Beverly Hills, Roberts studied and performed with the giants of theater at the Actors Studio in New York--Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets, Stella Adler, Elia Kazan. She’s prominent in the hurly-burly of women in theater and film, and in her salad days was a burgeoning movie star herself in movies with such titles as “Hollywood or Bust” (1956) with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and “Fort Defiance” (1951).

She proudly removes framed studio posters from her office wall, plopping them in your lap with a wry smile. They tell quite a story, revealing a gallery of ‘50s-era movies with knockout poses of a gleaming Roberts, who appears to be a starlet on a stairway to the stars.

But stardom in the movies, notwithstanding her great looks and talent (evidenced by Broadway stints in “Hedda Gabler” and other classics) eluded her.

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Explained Marcus: “She should have been a huge star.” Then she paused and wickedly grinned: “I think it was because she’s late (to meetings).”

Roberts, who segued from acting into coaching, clarified her feelings about fleeting time. “As you get older, you can’t get the parts. I hated all the B. S. involved. So when someone suggested I start teaching acting, it first seemed like a comedown. But my spiritual guide, my beloved acting inspiration and teacher Michael Chekhov (nephew to Anton Chekhov) emancipated me.

“I was also inspired by other actors who had taken up teaching, like Bruce Dern and Lee Grant.” And, of course, the hated Lee Strasberg.

Marcus (ex-New York Daily News copy girl, Cosmopolitan columnist, co-creator of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and most recently supervising producing and head writer on the just-canceled, 14-year “Knots Landing”) also tried acting for a split second but never bedazzled the cameras like Roberts. Marcus’ metier, when not writing, is politics. She cut a swath through Washington last month when she traveled with a Hollywood writers’ delegation to President Clinton’s inauguration, promoting The Hollywood Film Disclosure Act at an American Film Institute party and to congressmen attending the California Ball at Kennedy Center.

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Today she sits on powerful Hollywood boards, as secretary-treasurer of the Writers Guild of America, West, and as a governor of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. “I hit the jackpot the last couple of years,” Marcus said, “so I put up the money for ‘The Art of Dining.’ ”

Roberts filled in the flavorful details: “We were at the Bistro celebrating my birthday, and one of the gifts was a present with Ann’s check inside it.”

Now Tracy is trying to persuade Ann and brother Raymond to return to Little Falls, N. Y., and collaborate on a “Rashomon"-type trilogy about their village childhoods. Ann’s not sure that’s a good idea: “I can’t go back because of what I wrote about the place.”

“The Art of Dining” plays at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 5 p.m. Sunday, indefinitely, at the Tracy Roberts Theatre, 141 S. Robertson Blvd., (just north of Third St.), West Hollywood. $17.50. Call: (310) 271-1478.

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