"I hardly ever hit anyone any more"

Family's Gary Frank now saves his best shots for his acting

by Arnold Hano
TV Guide, March 15, 1980

On stage at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, Kate Jackson opened the envelope. "And the winner is --" she said, "-- Gary Frank!"

The winner sat stunned until his wife Carroll Newman jabbed him to his feet. On stage he blurted wildly, "I'm scared to death!"

Which is how Gary Frank, of ABC's Family, won his Emmy and blew his cover. He likes to think he is above showing his emotions, except when he is acting. So cool you could ice skate on him.

At least, that's his image. On the outside, rational, equable, poised. And inside? "He's a passionate and angry person," says Carroll Newman, who is also the associate producer on Family. "But he channels his anger into his acting."

Gary Frank agrees. "I can show fear or rage when I am acting. If I ever showed that same fear or rage offstage, I would be embarrassed. Those big emotions an actor can show within a character are emotions I would never reveal as myself."

Except when he does. The inside Gary Frank sometimes comes out. Two years ago he got into a shouting match with a perfect stranger in the supermarket and wanted to step outside and settle it with his fists. His wife held him back. He once drank too much at a party and swung at the man who ran the acting school Gary Frank then attended. Still, in each case nothing came of it. The supermarket argument fizzled; the thrown punch missed.

"I hardly ever hit anyone any more," he says. He fights only when words fail him. "When I can't vent my anger in words -- and I sometimes get tongue-tied when I'm angry -- then the only recourse is to hit. I just go crazy. I'm willing to hit and I do. I'm willing to yell and shout obscenities and I do. If there's something nearby and throwable, I throw it."

He'd like to believe all this is passing, and perhaps it is. After all, he hasn't had a real fist fight in over three years, or shortly before he was married. "My temper is less quick to rise. I used to have romantic illusions about being Irish and getting drunk and brawling. Since then I've learned most Irishmen who get drunk just fall asleep." And it does help his acting. "'I have this reservoir of rage that's always convenient to tap. I'm sure we all have this rage, except mine seems closer to the surface."

None of this is disabling. During an interview at his home in Brentwood, purchased two years ago for $250,000, he sat quietly on a couch beneath a huge Jasper Johns print and spoke calmly of his life and career.

Twenty-nine-year-old Gary Frank, who plays 23-year-old Willie Lawrence, functions very well much of the time. His looks help. He is blond, small-boned, boyish in build.

He is good with dogs and children, but that's not what won his Emmy. It is the sudden spasms of passion, the big blowing-up scenes. For all his boyish looks, he is a successful romantic leading man, particularly when he plays opposite a mature woman.

Gary's own family is quite unlike the Pasadena-based Lawrences of Family. "We moved an awful lot. My father was in real estate. His job led us from Washington to Oregon to California. Ethnically, we're different from the Lawrences. My father is German Jewish, my mother is Irish Mormon. From the time I was 15, I wanted to be an actor. That was my only interest. Willie on Family is 23 this season. If I'd had that many love affairs by the time I was 23, I'd be dead."

He studied drama at high school and college, and then with the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. He liked the Institute but not one of Strasberg's administrators. "At a Christmas party the administrator said something I objected to and then walked away. I'd been drinking and so had he. I followed and tapped his shoulder. He turned and I swung. I missed and fell down. I was pulled away by a couple of very strong girls."

In 1973 he landed a role on General Hospital, $300 a show, for eight or nine shows, playing a bedridden patient. With authority. He went to work on a Monday and wasn't scheduled to return until the next Monday. To celebrate he went for a spin in his Karmann-Ghia along Mulholland Drive atop the Hollywood Hills. The car hit a soft shoulder and plunged 400 feet down the cliff. Gary was thrown out. He broke a bone in his lower back and he broke his nose. He spent a week in the hospital and showed up for work the next Monday, wearing a brace. His nose was no big deal, he'd broken it four times.

Gary Frank has gone through several cars. Once he bought a Jaguar to impress a girl. She promptly left. The Jaguar didn't much impress Carroll Newman either. When they were married in August of 1976 (his first, her second), Carroll, a tall leggy woman. discovered huge bruises on her thighs from getting in and out of the Jag. So the Jaguar went, replaced by a used Porsche. One day the FBI showed up at the Family offices on the 20th Century-Fox lot. It turned out the Porsche was a stolen car. The FBI drove it off, but not before the agents asked Gary for autographed photos. So Gary got himself an Alfa Romeo -- which he plowed into a fence, backing up. He insists he's an excellent driver.

His career has been equally bumpy. In January of 1974, he made a TV-movie, "Senior Year," for Universal, about life at a Midwest high school. The film led to the starring role in a CBS series, Sons and Daughters, which lasted nine episodes. He appeared in Ironside and The Streets ot San Francisco, and then in February of 1975 he read for the part of Willie in the Family pilot. The next day he was hired.

The pilot was shot in March for which Gary received $3000. But the pilot took forever to sell. "I did nothing except one Medical Center for nearly a year. I cashed unemployment checks." Family finally opened as a miniseries in March of 1976, and instantly caught on. Now it has finished shooting its fifth and final season, and Gary Frank, out of work, looks back with some pleasure and much bewildered anger.

"The first full season was wonderful. My enthusiasm never faltered. The second season was interesting because I had a lot to do. The next year I did less and my interest waned." But that was nothing compared with the current final season. ABC, in its infinite wisdom, chose to make the show the fall guy for Monday Night Football. Instead of discovering a new time slot for the still-popular series, the network wiped it off the air until Monday Night Football had concluded.

It shot 13 episodes, the last of them scheduled to run immediately after Winter Olympics coverage. All the shooting concluded by October, with the network holding out hope that nine more episodes might still be made for a full-season complement of 22. The cast's five-year contracts expired on Dec. 1, 1979.

"We wanted to go out with a flourish," says Gary Frank, "not a whimper." They went out silently. By June Family will be officially off the air.

Not that Family has been all of Gary Frank's career all these years. He was the host for a Dorothy Hamill special in zero-degree weather at Lake Placid and then stumbled off on frostbitten feet to a nearby car where he and Carroll huddled over steaming jugs of coffee. In the 1979 spring hiatus he made a TV-movie for CBS, "The Gift," with Glenn Ford. The movie was critically acclaimed, but murdered by its ABC opposition, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Still, he says, he remembers fondly much of these past five ABC years. "Though some of the time we were treated as dirt," he adds, it was a five years of togetherness for Gary and Carroll. He and Carroll would go off to the set every working day and return every evening, Gary first, Carroll an hour or so later. Things then picked up, because Gary Frank's true passion is not fist fighting but eating. He would head straight for the kitchen and open a bottle of beer to wash down a batch of potato chips while he prepared dinner. One reason he gorges so before dinner is that Carroll's diet is restricted by hypoglycemia. "I might make myself a sandwich to go with the beer. If there's a piece of dessert around, I eat that. I have a second beer before dinner and a third beer with."

Where most people eat three meals spread over the waking day, Gary likes to eat them back-to-back (to back). "Christmas Eve 1978 was wonderful," he says dreamily. "We ate at home in the late afternoon. Then we went over to Carroll's folks for supper. Then we went to the home of some friends for chili and ham. I was in heaven. Three meals in three hours." He weighs the same 135 pounds he weighed in college.

Not all holidays end so pleasantly. One Thanksgiving he and Carroll and his folks flew up to San Jose to spend the day with Gary's brother Steven. "I'm always cajoling my folks to do things." Obediently, they went for a walk. Gary's mother tripped over a rock, breaking both arms, a leg and her nose. It must be catching.

For all of Gary's pushing others onward and out, he's mainly a homebody, either stuffing himself in the kitchen or sitting in the sunswept den where Gary's Emmy perches on a piano. Carroll, two years older than Gary, comes from a musical family; her father is composer Lionel Newman, singer-composer Randy Newman is her cousin.

In the same den is Gary's video recorder. On occasion he has enjoyed playing the tape of that Emmy evening, Sept. 11, 1977, when he beat out Noah Beery, Will Geer, David Doyle and Tom Ewell as best supporting actor in a dramatic series. "It still stuns me," he would say. "I still expect them to say, 'And the winner is -- Noah Beery!'"

He would watch himself, on that tape, scared to death -- revealing himself -- when he mounts the stage, and then putting on his cool front, making the obligatory thank-yous before he says softly, "And for the security, good advice, and the love I need, I want to thank Carroll Newman, the associate producer of the show who is also my wife." The camera closes in on Carroll Newman. Everything is catching. All she wanted was to look cool and lovely. Instead, she is crying like a baby, not only out of love and pride, but because her dress has come undone and she is frantically trying to put herself back together.

It is a feeling Gary Frank knows well these days. "This is the worst time of my career. I'm trying to put the pieces back together. Trying to get going again." He says he knows what he wants. "I want to work."

It is a plaintive sound.