They were two 1970s TV stars whose paths never quite crossed… until, five decades later, Cupid struck by video call during the pandemic. PATRICK DUFFY and LINDA PURL tell Sarfraz Manzoor about the romance that took them both by surprise.
It is late January and in the upstairs office of a building close to Paddington station, actors Patrick Duffy and Linda Purl are sitting together. He is 72, she is 66 and they are holding hands. The official reason for talking to them is so they can promote Catch Me If You Can – the play in which they both star, which opened last week and continues touring around the country until the summer.
The actual reason I want to talk to them is because Patrick and Linda area real-life couple. Their relationship started just before the pandemic, at a time in both their lives when they had given up on ever finding love again. Theirs is a gloriously open-hearted and inspiring love story, and it starts with a flashback.
Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. Patrick is starring in the sci-fi television series Man from Atlantis, but the show is rumoured to be getting cancelled after the first season. Patrick is looking around for his next project. He is sent a script for a show called Young Pioneers, a western series starring Linda. Patrick reads the script but decides to pass on it. He accepts another television offer instead – a soap named after the city in which it is set: Dallas. And so they never met and both Patrick and Linda’s lives followed their own arcs, only to intersect decades on.
‘This needed to happen now, not then,’ says Patrick, who famously played Bobby Ewing. ‘I feel that this happened 18 months ago because it was the precise time in my life when I needed her.’
Linda is less well known in the UK, but she has been a TV fixture since the 1970s when she played The Fonz’s girlfriend Ashley in Happy Days and more recently appeared in Homeland and the American version of The Office. Their relationship histories during that time could hardly have been more different. Patrick met and married the ballet dancer Carlyn Rosser in the early 70s and the couple remained solidly and happily married until she died in 2017. Linda has been married four times including to Desi Arnaz Jr (son of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) for a year in the early 80s, and screenwriter Alexander Cary, with whom she has a son, Lucius, born in 1995. ‘Mine’s more colourful,’ she says, ‘but there has been a lifelong desire for continuity, consistency and shared experience. It just took a different path to get here.’
The path began in the autumn of 2019. Patrick and Linda both attended an event in LA where they met through a mutual friend, who set up a text chat with the three of them but soon dropped out of the group, leaving Patrick and Linda to text each other. That soon led to weekly FaceTime sessions – Patrick on location filming in Canada and Linda in New York where she was performing in a play. ‘I’d say, “Here’s what my ranch looks like,” and she’d say, “Here’s my apartment,”’ recalls Patrick. ‘We did a FaceTime every Wednesday. So about three weeks into that, I said, “Is there any reason Sunday can’t be Wednesday?” And then the pandemic hit.’
Confined to their homes – Patrick at his ranch in Oregon and Linda in Colorado – they moved from FaceTime to Zoom. ‘We Zoomed for a couple of months for two to three hours a night,’ says Linda. ‘Seven days a week,’ adds Patrick. The more they talked, the more they found they had in common – not just the television industry, but finding solace in family and children. ‘We found all of this common turf and then we would drop down to a different level,’ says Linda. ‘Patrick would read me a poem he’d written. Hello! He writes poetry…’
After his wife died, Patrick retreated to his ranch where he spent 18 months almost entirely on his own. ‘I had all these emotions,’ he recalls, ‘not just about the relationship [with Carlyn] but about life, so I would walk around the ranch and think in a way and to a depth I had not before.’ The poem he read to Linda was about an old tree in an orchard that was dead – but written from the point of view actually got a bunch of my poems, put them in a little book and gave them to me,’ says Patrick. When he was not reading poems to Linda, he would listen to music that she would put on – Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’. ‘She says we listened to music together,’ says Patrick, ‘but she would listen to the music and I would watch her listening to the music.’
They talked and talked and the pandemic pushed them further into each other’s minds and hearts.
One night, around two months into their nightly Zoom sessions, Patrick signed off by saying ‘I love you’ and then hanging up. ‘That was a big floor drop,’ says Linda. ‘I probably tarted up a bit more for the next Zoom, just to be sure.’
‘The next night was kind of frightening,’ admits Patrick. ‘A line had been crossed and then the conversation became that it would be great to see her.’ Linda ended the Zoom saying they would talk tomorrow. Patrick had a response ready – he would drive to see her. It was 24 June 2020.
‘I drove 23 hours nonstop to end up on her doorstep,’ Patrick says. ‘When the GPS told me I was five minutes from her home I pulled over and changed from my shorts and sh***y shirt into good pants and a nice shirt. I water-slicked my hair back. I gargled. I put a little cologne on and I got back in the car.’
‘I think I changed my outfit about ten times that morning,’ recalls Linda. ‘It was juvenile and delightful.’ Patrick turned up at her doorstep. They had spent many, many hours in each other’s company from different states and now they were standing opposite each other. ‘Hello,’ Patrick said to Linda. ‘May I kiss you?’
Two weeks passed. Patrick had to return to the ranch but there was one problem. ‘I knew I had to leave,’ he says, ‘but I knew I didn’t want to leave her.’ One evening they were sitting around a fire pit in the back yard of Linda’s home having a drink when Patrick said, ‘I need to talk to you about something.’ Linda feared he was about to end things and braced herself for the bad news. ‘I said, “I really have to leave the day after tomorrow, but is there any reason you can’t come with me?” She packed her bag and we drove 23 hours in the opposite direction – and we’ve never been apart since.’
After that trip to Colorado, Patrick and Linda quarantined together in preparation to both appear in the same TV movie. Now they are also starring in a play that will similarly mean they will be spending nearly all of their waking hours together. ‘It was very odd to walk to and from the set holding hands,’ says Linda. ‘And very odd to be at the end of a particular take when I got a pat on the bottom saying, “Good job.”’ She laughs. The chemistry and affection between the couple is palpable – during our chat Linda instinctively puts her hand on Patrick’s knee and they often hold hands as they talk.
‘Life is fantastic, absolutely fantastic,’ enthuses Patrick. ‘I’m as happy now as I was in the first year of being with my wife.’ He was in his early 20s then, 50 years ago. I want to know what was different about falling in love at this time in their lives. ‘So many of the boxes are ticked,’ says Linda. ‘We are not at the bottom of the mountain building our careers– we are very happy if we get to work, but we’re also happy if we’re not working.’
‘The ability to discuss any subject isn’t scary now,’ adds Patrick. ‘Neither of us is really invested in protecting ourselves. It’s something you learn as you mature. One of the things I learned in a relationship is to acquiesce without feeling that you’re giving up anything. It’s a learning process – not to keep a debit book: “I did that for you two days ago, so you owe me one.”’
Those are the advantages, but surely, I ask, there must be downsides? The older one gets, the greater the chance that you get set in your ways, which can pose a challenge to relationships. ‘I enjoy my alone time, but she enjoys being sociable much more,’ Patrick says. ‘Her happy places are at the beach, hiking in the mountains or mountain-biking. I don’t do that.’
The reason that those differences did not pull them apart, he says, is that he viewed the relationship as ‘two people moving in tandem but not dependent on each other. Their support for each other extends to their children. ‘Lucius fell in love with Patrick and has thanked him often,’ says Linda.
‘He has, on several occasions, written specifically to say, “I’m so glad you’re in my mother’s life. I’ve never seen her so happy,”’ says Patrick, who has two sons – Padraic, born in 1974, and Conor, born in 1980. ‘And my boys have seen me happier than I had been in five years.’
While their dating histories are very different, both Patrick and Linda had been single for around the same length of time when they met and neither seriously rated their chances of falling in love again. How much, I wonder, did they believe in fate?
‘You have to put in the effort and you have to be bold,’ says Patrick, ‘but I think the forces of the universe are working for all of us.’ I ask Linda the same question. She tells me about an interview she read about a man who rowed across the Atlantic and was asked by a journalist if, when the boat was being tossed upside down, he cried out for God? ‘And he said, “No, I had to reach for the oar, and once I did the reaching then God would help me.”’
The secret, then, if there is a secret, is both Patrick and Linda remained hopeful about falling in love and open to that possibility. Both retain a keen sense of gratitude for the way their story has unfolded. That is why their tale is so joyful and ultimately inspiring.
‘It’s astonishing that this has happened, for both of us,’ says Linda. ‘I’m grateful and pretty much in a state of wonder.’ She pauses, turns to Patrick and then to me and says, ‘What are the chances?’
Catch Me If You Can is on tour now. For full details, and to book tickets, visit kenwright.com
Left: Linda as Ashley in Happy Days