HOLLYWOOD - When they arrived arm-in-arm at the Los Angeles Area Emmy awards last May 20, a buzz swept through the startled crowd. Many people gawked. At least one man dropped his cocktail.
The worst-kept secret in local TV news was now out in public. With a simple show of togetherness, KCBS-TV co-anchors Bree Walker and Jim Lampley confirmed what their colleagues had been whispering for months: that while married to other people, the pair had become L.A.'s most visible office romance.
By all accounts, it started as a typical office affair: subtle and secret, sweet but sad, and, sometimes, scandalous. And, always, stuff for the in-house gossip mill. They held hands in empty hallways, stole kisses in the parking lot and fell in love.
What was different was that these were high-salaried TV personalities who worked side by side. Eventually, details of the affair spread throughout Southern California, and beyond. As anchors for the 5 and 11 p.m. newscasts in the nation's second-biggest TV news market - and the most competitive - Walker, 36, and Lampley, 40, couldn't brush hands without gossip columnists reporting it, or without at least one letter to the editor complaining they were acting ``like a couple of lovesick teen-agers.''
And then last Oct. 30, KCBS took the unusual step of acknowledging the office romance in a terse press release: ``KCBS-TV is pleased to announce that `Action News' anchors Bree Walker and Jim Lampley will be married in April 1990. No interviews will be granted.''
What the press release didn't say was that the pair weren't yet divorced from their respective spouses.
Severing their 10-year marriages wasn't easy, given the three children, anchor-size salaries and emotions at stake. Lampley recently burst into tears when asked about the surprise 40th-birthday party his wife threw him last spring, the family portrait she commissioned for him, and the 520 roses she sent him, one for every week of their marriage, in an apparent bid to get him back.
Now that Lampley's and Walker's divorces are final (his came through in January, hers in February), plans were for the couple to be married yesterday at a Southern California resort hotel. KCBS would neither confirm nor deny the date.
What effect, if any, will their marriage have on their newscasts' flat ratings? Married anchors are a rarity; married anchors who fall in love on air rarer still. Sure, local TV stations across the country spend millions creating the image that their news teams get along. But what happens when that on-air happy talk turns to real-life pillow talk? Will viewers start watching the ``Action News'' anchors or the action between the news anchors?
And, for that matter, how accountable are TV news stars to the public? Should they be regarded as role models, like professional athletes and elected politicians? Of course, their rewards are big, but so are the burdens. Consider the headlines about Liz Walker, the Boston anchorwoman who quietly had a baby out of wedlock. Or Jim Jensen, the New York anchorman who secretly battled addictions to cocaine and Valium. Or Max Robinson, the Chicago TV newsman who died of AIDS-related causes.
Maybe that's why Bree Walker's and Jim Lampley's hands are so tightly entwined as they talk for the first time about the relationship they say is ``bigger than any job.''
``What happened between us was so powerful, and had such a life of its own, that we recognized there would be no turning back,'' says Lampley, his voice trembling with nervousness. ``But we weren't going to attempt to tailor our behavior from that point forward, according to the professional response of our colleagues. We hoped that people would be supportive - and they have.''
``I thought it would certainly be an opportunity for us to find out who our friends were,'' notes the cooler Walker, who has been in the national spotlight as the first physically disabled anchorwoman to climb to the top of a profession known for putting a premium on cosmetic perfection. People magazine, ABC's ``Good Morning America'' and other media wrote of her rare hereditary disorder known as syndactylism, which causes severely deformed hands and feet.
``And although it still makes me really uncomfortable to think about people who might disapprove of it, because I'm concerned about that, this was so big that at last my heart took over,'' she says.
Robert Highland, KCBS' vice president and general manager, has denied published reports that management frowned on the Lampley-Walker liaison. And while sources say that one ``old-fashioned'' employee in the newsroom openly disapproved and kept referring to the ``adulterers,'' by all accounts the pair's friends and colleagues at the station seemed to be understanding.
``I didn't view the relationship as scandalous or in bad taste,'' says former KCBS early-morning news anchor Jim Moret. ``You have to respect people's private lives, and you have to respect their choices in personal relationships.''
When Lampley arrived at KCBS in September 1987, he was a bona fide TV star. Plucked to cover college football while still only a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Lampley had enjoyed a 13-year tenure at ABC Sports as one of the nation's best-known sportscasters. After serving as KCBS sports director for a year, he became news anchor in August 1988.
Colleagues describe Lampley as self-confident and charismatic. ``There's definitely a charm about Jim,'' says Moret.
While Lampley stayed somewhat aloof from the newsroom staff, Walker was ``one of those anchors who's relaxed enough to just be one of the guys,'' says an insider.
Hired by KCBS in October 1988, Walker immediately moved into the desk next to Lampley's. Like any newsroom, KCBS' had ``a lot of camaraderie,'' staffers say, because of the long and often odd hours. So, in the beginning, their office behavior was similar to that of any colleagues who work closely together - good-natured bantering that never seemed to get personal.
And colleagues didn't give a second thought that Lampley and Walker, like most anchors who work the same schedule, huddled in private conversation or took their dinner breaks together. ``It was a chance to catch up on business, bitch about management, even exchange confidences,'' one staffer explains. ``Because the person you work with the closest is the one who knows what's going on in your life.''
And what was going on in their lives was personal heartache.
Like Walker, Lampley had married twice: first to his childhood sweetheart, and then again in April 1979, to Joanne, an exotic-looking brunette, former teacher and aspiring artist. Together the couple had two daughters - ages 10 and 3. But when Lampley took the KCBS job and moved from Manhattan to Los Angeles, Joanne and the girls didn't come along.
``She didn't want to move here. That seemed to be the real stumbling block,'' Murphy recalls.
According to Lampley, his wife filed for divorce in March 1988, changed her mind, and then filed again in October of that year. ``All I can tell you is that what took place did so over a long period of time,'' Lampley relates. ``When I came here it was my fondest and most heartfelt intention that my wife and family would come to California to live here with me. And I tried long and hard to make that a reality. And it didn't happen.''
Walker was a brand-new mother when she arrived at KCBS. She and her second husband, Robert Smith Walker, a 41-year-old independent film and video producer described as a quiet man with ``offbeat Jack Nicholson'' looks, had Andrea-Lyne Walker on Aug. 12, 1988. The couple were aware that any children they had would run a 50 percent chance of inheriting Bree's syndactylism, and Andrea-Lyne was born with the disorder.
Walker had asked to be let out of her contract at WCBS in New York after only 14 months because her husband had found it difficult to move his free-lance production business from San Diego to New York. Sources in San Diego, where Bree's parents have lived since 1982, also maintain that career tensions helped to create the couple's rift. For her part, Walker won't confirm or deny these reports.
Though she had already started divorce proceedings, Joanne threw a surprise 40th-birthday party for her husband at the tony Beverly Hills restaurant Tribeca on March 26.
``Maybe shock would be a better word,'' Lampley says.
``Lampley's wife got wind of the relationship and decided that she didn't like the fact that he was seeing someone, especially someone famous like Bree, whom she obviously knew from New York TV,'' one colleague maintains. ``So she decided she wanted him back.''
Then Lampley's wife asked Joan Agajanian Quinn, then society columnist for the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, to cover the event. Finally, Joanne presented her husband with a family portrait painted by Interview cover artist Richard Bernstein, who commanded a six-figure price for the painting.
According to Bernstein, who was at the party, Lampley looked hard at the portrait and ``was trying to remember when the picture was taken. He knew he never posed for it.'' In fact, Bernstein had worked from two pictures Joanne had given him: one of herself and the children, and the other just of Jim. ``I had to be edited in,'' says Lampley.
With that, the anchorman begins to weep.
In April, Joanne sent roses to Jim. Dozens and dozens of them carried into the newsroom by deliverymen, 520 in all. ``They arrived on my 10th wedding anniversary, one rose for each of the 520 weeks of the marriage up to that point,'' Lampley explains.
He stares at the floor. ``I couldn't possibly presume to comment as to what their intent was.''
On May 9, then Herald-Examiner gossip columnist Mitchell Fink published the first of what were to be many news flashes about the Lampley-Walker romance in Southern California newspapers.
``I never suspected that we could be a news item,'' recalls Walker. ``I found it a little ridiculous. I felt that they must really be bored.''
About this time, Walker's husband moved out of their Los Angeles apartment. Lampley, meanwhile, told his friends that he and wife would not be reconciling.
``He said she wanted to move out here, but now it was too late. He didn't want her to,'' a friend recalls.
By the time of the Emmys, Lampley and Walker had decided to be together.
``I think it's fair to say we were ready at that point to confirm people's suspicions about whether we were behaving as a couple,'' Lampley says.
While Walker has custody of her child, Lampley decided to let his two daughters remain in New York with their mother ``because I worked 12- to 14-hour days and she doesn't,'' Lampley says. ``Not living with my children is a problem for me. I have what I think of as a very close relationship with my daughters. And I anticipate continuing (that) close relationship. My ex-wife has been in my view generous, graceful and in every way forthcoming in helping me to maintain that relationship.''
Lampley and Walker believe their off-air relationship has made their on-air one better. ``We kind of know each other's rhythms better than we would otherwise,'' Walker maintains. ``And to the extent that we know what the other one is thinking sometimes. When we do step on each other's lines, it's a natural thing. There's no sense of, `Oh, I blew it. Now he's going to be mad.' There's a real simpatico.''
However, KCBS newscasts are a distant third in the ratings and it remains to be seen what effect their marriage will have on viewership.
``I don't think it'll make a whit of difference,'' declares Walker.