Partners in Prime Patricia Wettig and Ken Olin cope with marriage, jealousy and a hit show

LIFE, 04-01-1988, pp 63.

Will he ever learn to pick up the laundry? Will she ever throw the perfect birthday party for her toddler? Will they ever have satisfying sex lives? These are the gripping questions, the problems of people who have everything, addressed by ABC's thirtysomething. The answers are keenly awaited each week by some 20 million voyeurs who have made this prime-time serial, a sort of As the Cuisinart Turns, the breakout hit of the season.

Gritty vignettes in the lives of the upwardly mobile are acted by an ensemble that knows about what it emotes. Actors Ken Olin and Patricia Wettig are, like the characters they portray, self-analyzing, upscale types in their 30s (she 31, he 33) who are trying to piece together love, work and parenthood. But unlike their small-screen personas, the two are married to each other (on TV they have different love interests). Says Olin, ''We ignite each other in a very positive and creative and passionate and emotional way.'' (Translation for other demographic groups: They fight a lot, but making up is sweet.)

Those emotions are the raw material for their on-camera romances -- and, given the thespian tendency to confuse art with life, that can get as sticky as a baby eating Frusen Gladje. Olin plays everywoman's ideal of a sexy, sensitive family man; Wettig is cast as a neurotic mother. ''I had seen Ken do sexual scenes with other women, but this was the first time I saw him relating to somebody the way he does to me,'' says Wettig. ''He is using what he knows about loving someone, and it's like -- 'Wait a minute, you don't say that to anybody but me!' '' Her husband can be equally indignant. Says Olin, ''I've been dealing with how inappropriate it seems for Patty to be doing certain kinds of scenes.'' Wettig explains, ''From the day we met, we've been possessive and jealous.''

Their first encounter was on a train from New York to New Hampshire, where she was to play Stella to his Stanley in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. He was the pampered (baseball star at a Vermont prep school, English major at the University of Pennsylvania) youngest son of a wealthy Jewish pharmaceutical company owner. She was a Cincinnati-born WASP, daughter of a University of Tennessee basketball coach. He was engaged; she was living with someone. ''By the end of the trip I was madly in love with her,'' he recalls. ''Before we actually made love, we talked about getting married.''

After they wed in 1982, she spun into a part on St. Elsewhere, he to continuing television series roles as Detective Garabaldi on Hill Street Blues and the philandering priest on Falcon Crest. He apologizes for the latter: ''We had a second child on the way, so I did it.'' But it was the couple's first child, Clifford, who made the family fortune. Clifford fell in love with Lizzie at preschool. Lizzie's father was cocreator of thirtysomething.

Now the couple commutes from a pink, Pacific Palisades house with toy-filled yard (Monster Flesh, Mad Scientist, a tiny Porsche just like Daddy's) to trailers with matching decor (paintings by Clifford) at the CBS-MTM Studio Center in the San Fernando Valley. A nanny cares for the children. Since the couple's on-screen characters meet only in passing, their scenes are shot separately. ''We thought that doing the show we'd have all this time together, but we have yet to come to work in the same car,'' says Wettig. With the tough schedule of a weekly show (hair and makeup call is at 5 a.m. and shooting can end as late as 10 p.m.), workouts at the gym have gone by the wayside too.

''It's dangerous to assume that because you have money you should be happy,'' says Olin, who will not reveal how much he makes per episode. ''Part of me is this suburban boy that likes major sports cars and leather jackets. Now I have this family that I'm in love with and this job that is fulfilling. I even have a leather jacket.''

''Half his closet is filled with leather jackets,'' says Wettig. But his black Porsche 911 has been making a clunk. ''This car has 1,700 miles on it, and they're picking it up for the fifth time,'' moans Olin. ''I think I'm being punished for my material values.'' These are problems?

Just wait till they both hit fortysomething.

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