USING FAME TO HELP CHILDREN Actress Susan St. James stays busy raising a family, speaking out for causes


It has been two years since Susan St. James retired from the fast-paced life of a television and movie star, but the 45-year-old actress hasn't exactly been sitting around with her feet up.

"I've got an 8-year-old son who's a Cub Scout -- that's a career in itself," quips Ms. St. James, who spent more than two decades acting and whose last role was Kate McArdle in the television comedy "Kate & Allie." "I had to learn to use a drill to do all the scout projects. I should be the one who gets the merit badges."

She also has a daughter in college, a son in high school and two other boys, ages 5 and 16 months. "My life is full," she says. "When you have five kids, life is so interesting and so much fun.

"Sometimes, I even try and spend time with my husband (Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports)," she adds. "He's really fun and interesting, too."

Ms. St. James was in town yesterday to speak at a conference for the Association of Child Advocates, a national organization of state-based child advocacy groups.

Her message? "As an educated, affluent person, I know how hard it is to raise a child," she says. "How can the kids raised in an environment of poverty, neglect and abuse make it at all? The only way is through groups like this."

Her speech was an extension of volunteer work she has done for the Special Olympics and the Children's Health Fund, which offers free medical tests to some of New York's neediest children, she says.

"It's funny about attitudes toward children," she allows. "For years, children were looked upon as chattel or property. They were not regarded as having any rights."

Sitting in a small reception room at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, her brown hair framing picture-perfect features, she still looks the part of the glamorous TV and movie actress.

So what if she was once described as "tawny and tantalizing?" So what if she played opposite the likes of Tony Franciosa and Rock Hudson in the TV shows "Name of the Game" and "McMillan and Wife," or opposite Peter Fonda and George Hamilton in the movies "Outlaw Blues" and "Love At First Bite?"

Her manner is so open, and her husky voice so warm that she comes across as, well, the woman down the street who seems to have been put on Earth to comfort little kids.

Which, when you listen to Ms. St. James talk, does not seem too far from the truth.

"I'm an incredible seamstress," she says with obvious pride. "I make incredible costumes. I'm doing Captain Hook and Peter Pan for Halloween. Last year, I did Batman and Robin."

But her life has not been a carbon copy of Ozzie and Harriet. In the mid-1970s, Ms. St. James divorced her second husband, Tom Lucas, a makeup artist whom she met on the set of "McMillan and Wife." She moved from Hollywood to New York, sharing custody of their two, then-young children, Sunshine and Harmony. ("In the '70s, I named my kids after concepts," she says.)

Ms. St. James praises Mr. Lucas as "a good dad" but says her experience reinforces her thesis about the difficulty of raising children. "Even under the best of circumstances, divorce is very trying to a child," she says. "It's not fun to have one parent on one coast and one on the other."

Recently, her 16-year-old son went to California to spend his last two years of high school with his father. "At first, I felt a sense of loss," she confides. "Then I began to feel it was sort of flattering. It says a lot about the way their relationship has survived."

Ms. St. James spent several years as a divorced mother -- a role she also played in "Kate & Allie," perhaps her most popular work -- beforemarrying Mr. Ebersol -- the father of her three youngest children, Charles, William and Edward -- in 1981.

Although Ms. St. James had wanted to concentrate on films after leaving "McMillian and Wife" in 1975, she accepted the part in "Kate & Allie" in 1984 because, she says, even the demanding schedule of a TV series is more structured and more conducive to raising kids, than that of movie-making.

But when the show was canceled five years later, she had had enough of show-biz, opting instead to have another child.

She says she "loved" her career but notes she "worked hard all my life" and now is content skiing, gardening and raising her family. "I'm consciously trying to make it go away," she says of her celebrity status, though she admits she uses it at times like yesterday's speech.

And, in a limited way, she'll be back in the public eye -- or, more precisely, ear -- next August when a new radio station she, Mr. Ebersol and MTV creator Robert Pittman are launching in their hometown Litchfield, Conn. goes on the air. Ms. St. James, who did a couple of stints as a radio DJ years ago, is planning to be the morning drive personality.

"I'm up early anyway," she says. "And I'll still have the afternoons free for the family."

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