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Strauss Is Ready for Phase 2 of His Career

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Actor Peter Strauss is grumbling.

A lean man with muscular arms and hair the color of wet sand, he stands on the crest of a hill overlooking his citrus farm in the east Ojai valley--30 acres, 3,000 trees, 440 tons of oranges a year. The market is “very bad this year,” he says. “Mr. Clinton’s allowing Australia to bring its oranges into America. Florida--though I don’t wish evil on anyone--did not get as cold as I hoped.”

The pickers have just left “but you’ll see we’ve left a lot of fruit, and [they’re] considered small. Anywhere else in the world this fruit would be considered terrific but Americans are very funny. They like oranges the size of grapefruit . . . big and perfect.”

A mood of discontent extends to his main career too. A leading man of miniseries and movies for television, Strauss is particularly disturbed by what he considers to be the unredeeming bad-guy roles in those formats that in recent years have become staples for men. So Strauss, who turned 48 this week, sees himself at a crossroads, ready to enter “the second stage of my life.”

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Strauss says he is looking to do a breakthrough movie or a TV series. He is currently reviewing two series projects.

Nevertheless, his first-stage career keeps rising up to meet him--from the landmark 1976 miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man” to a new TV movie on Fox.

Beginning Sunday and running through March 24, the original 12-hour ABC miniseries, based on the novel by Irwin Shaw, returns to TV on the Family Channel in celebration of its 20th anniversary. “I can go nowhere in the world,” Strauss says in wonder, “where someone will not come up to me and says, ‘Rooody, Rudy Jordache.’ . . . “

“Rich Man, Poor Man” helped establish the miniseries genre. It drew big ratings and garnered 23 Emmy nominations, a record at the time, winning four. It also made Strauss--as Rudy Jordache, the good brother who grows up to be a senator--a major TV actor. The actor who played the rough-and-tumble younger brother, Tom Jordache, emerged an even bigger star. Remember Nick Nolte?

Meanwhile, Strauss’ newest lead role in “In the Lake of the Woods” airs March 5 on Fox. The movie, based on a 1994 novel by Tim O’Brien, is a dark thriller about a front-running senatorial candidate whose participation in a My Lai-type massacre in Vietnam unravels both his political career and his marriage.

The crux of the drama is the lady-or-the-tiger ambiguity of the disappearance of the candidate’s wife (Kathleen Quinlan) at the secluded lake in the woods where the couple had gone to recoup. Did he kill her? Did she leave him? Is she even alive?

While Strauss admires the ambiguity as a rare phenomenon on TV and fought for it with Fox executives, he asserts that “this is the end of a cycle. I think I’ve had enough of men like this.”

“I’ve worked out my own demons,” he continues, sitting at a thick oak table inside his expansive Spanish colonial house. “I’m at a different place in my own life, and I have ‘For Rent’ signs all over my internal being that say ‘Laughter,’ ‘Comedy.’ And looking at the film with my children reminded me that I’ve come through a phase in my life where I no longer want to celebrate this kind of profound unhappiness.”

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Strauss has two sons, Justin, 12, and Tristan, 10; he and his ex-wife Nicole, who lives just down the road, share custody. Both boys are honor students and on the soccer team at a nearby private school. Tristan was recently cast there as Huck Finn. In addition, says Strauss, he and Rachel Ticotin (“Big Steal, Big Little,” “Total Recall”) are “talking about marriage.” Already Strauss is planning where 11-year-old Greta, Ticotin’s daughter with former husband David Caruso of “NYPD Blue” fame, will have her bedroom.

For Strauss, the “joy of miniseries for every actor, every director, producer, writer” in years past was the “length of time [allowed] to develop characters and tell a story. Very often they were based on best-selling novels, and the finances that were made available were fruitful.”

“The allure of ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ and ‘Roots’ and ‘Thorn Birds’ [was] basically that VCRs were not available, and you needed to go home [to watch them],” he continues. “You needed to stay home if you wanted to follow the saga. Those shows shut down the restaurant business. The phenomenon of ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ on Monday nights was extraordinary.”

Adding to the financial obstacles of the lengthy miniseries format nowadays, Strauss notes, is the channel selector--that remote control unit that forces producers to speed up and punch up the action to retain audience. Previously, “conflict did not have to occur within the first four minutes.”

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A graduate of Northwestern who defines himself as a “classical actor [who’s] constantly seeking to explore [his] range,” Strauss is perhaps proudest of his role as an Olympic-caliber runner who’s in prison in “The Jericho Mile” (1979); it won him an Emmy. He was the leader of the Jewish fighters who chose suicide over surrender to the Romans in the 1981 miniseries “Masada” and was the penniless immigrant Abel Rosnovski who rises to great wealth in the 1985 miniseries “Kane and Abel.”

His range also includes stage and movies, from “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine” (1970) at the Mark Taper Forum to last year’s feature, “Nick of Time.”

Strauss exhibits neither envy nor bitterness with his own success vs. that of Nolte’s. “Nick, much to his credit,” he says softly, “knew how to handle [fame] and took advantage of it. I did not capitalize on it at all. I ran away for a year. I went to England.”

He couldn’t stand the hordes of fans who were “waiting to point, photograph, touch, ask for autographs.”

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Strauss, who heads Beowulf Productions, has developed a 12-hour miniseries on the history of Los Angeles. It is the kind of project he would like to do--and would like to see television do. It “makes the rounds every few months” but it just “sits.”

Instead, he says, he’s “basically seeing scripts where I abuse women or abuse my children or abuse strangers’ children. . . . This year I turned down a script of a father who protects his son after his son beats a girl to death with a baseball bat after raping her [based on the Dominick Dunne novel “A Season in Purgatory”]. I have turned down a script where I murder my wife and seduce the babysitter so she bears the responsibility. I have looked at a script where I rape my son’s best friend and get away with it, but then pay a terrible price. . . . I was asked to read material about a man who kills his children. And I said, ‘You know what? I’ve had it.’ ”

* “Rich Man, Poor Man” will air Sundays at 3 p.m., beginning this weekend, on cable’s Family Channel.

* “In the Lake of the Woods” airs March 5 at 8 p.m. on Fox (Channel 11).

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