When it comes to love and relationships, there’s no longer much that can surprise veteran actress Lisa Harrow.
The 70-year-old currently stars as meddling ex-mother-in-law Marion in TV2 comedy-drama Step Dave, which tells the story of Cara and Dave, who fall for each other despite their 16-year age gap and the mum of three’s mischievous children.
But the offbeat love story was hardly a stretch for the actress, whose romantic past has been anything but conventional.
“I’m afraid I haven’t learned anything about love from this show, because there’s nothing I don’t know about love or relationships,” she laughs.
“I’ll be 71 this year and I think I’ve seen it all. I’m the kind of girl who used to meet someone and then live with them the next day. I’ve flown head-on into love and have faced it all.”
The actress’ love life became water-cooler discussion in 1983, when she had a son, Tim, with Kiwi actor Sam Neill. But in typical Lisa fashion, it was far from smooth sailing.
She discovered the pregnancy post break-up, before going on stage with legendary actor Peter O’Toole, whom she credits with giving her the courage to get through an emotional time.
“I was on stage doing this scene with Peter where I had to be this strong woman who was in charge of all the men,” she recalls. “I had this line about all men being like boys, and I tried to say it, but instead of words, these tears just sprung out of my eyes. I was heaving with sobs, completely overcome and I thought it was the moment that I had lost my career.
“But Peter, holding my gaze, walked downstage until he had his back to the audience, so I was forced to look at him. With that, I was able to compose myself and we played the rest of the scene.
“As soon as the curtain hit the deck, he grabbed me and asked, ‘Baby, what’s the matter?’ and I half-sobbed, ‘Sam’s left me and I’m pregnant!’ He said, ‘Lisa, you don’t need a man. We’re all bastards, every one of us! You don’t need him to have this baby. It’s going to be fine, now pull yourself together.’
“He gave me this great pep talk and I felt fantastic, but then I found out a week later that that very weekend he’d gone and done the same thing to the mother of his child! Peter was a wicked, but wonderful man.”
With son Tim living in New Zealand, Lisa now splits her time between homes in Vermont, in the US, and Banks Peninsula. She shares her life with famed American biologist Roger Payne, credited with discovering that whales actually sing, rather than making random sounds.
After many years of rocky relationships, Lisa found the great love of her life in her typical whirlwind fashion, but this time it was for the long haul.
“I’d just finished a film in Australia, and for me, it closed the circle with Sam,” she says.
”I left Australia finally at peace with everything and went back to England, where I was asked to speak at a rally for whales.
“I didn’t know a thing about whales, but this guy opened the rally and he was the most charismatic, charming man I’ve ever met. I was bored with actors; this man was smart. Ten weeks later, we were married.”
Roger met then eight-year-old Tim at the rally too. The next day, the couple arranged to go to the zoo, then spent two weeks together over the next two months.
“The third time I saw him was when my son and I went to our wedding!” Lisa laughs.
“He and Tim went on the honeymoon and I went back to England to work. I saw him walking away with my son, and thought, ‘I don’t even know this man!’ But I did. I thought life would always be an adventure with him, and it has been.”
For now, Lisa’s heading back to the States to play Prospero in The Tempest, but not before she and Roger put their Banks Peninsula home on the market.
The sale doesn’t mean an end to her days in New Zealand though – she’ll certainly be back, hopefully before her son ties the knot in January, and perhaps for a long stint if her role on Step Dave continues.
Meanwhile, her time will be spent running lines with Roger.
“He has utter, infinite patience, making him the best person to run lines with,” she says.
“He’s made such a difference in my life and has been an outstanding stepfather. Tim’s so lucky to have two extraordinary men in his life, Rog and Sam. They get on the phone and have dad chats. I am lucky. I’ve had some amazing experiences.”