HOLLYWOOD -- Hollywood invented the ideal, or idealized, American marriage in films like "The Thin Man" and "The Best Years of Our Lives." But marriage in this company town has been more battlefront than beachfront. With very notable exceptions (James Stewart, Paul Newman), the community that thrives on illusion also thrives on separation. The Hollywood marriage too often becomes the Hollywood divorce.

So how do you cast a Hollywood couple? First by realizing that cliche's ("One star to a marriage") are as rampant as old Golden Globes. And just as useful.

Surprising solutions to the severe strains of marriage are offered by the couples of Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck and Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews. But can any conclusion be drawn? Only one: The idealized Nick and Nora Charles were never for real.

"There goes Federico Fellini," said producer Richard Zanuck, watching his wife make a whiz-bang exit from their Beverly Hills offices. Lili Fini Zanuck had just finished directing a Michael Franks music video, and she had to be in a Hollywood editing room in seven minutes.

"Dinner at 8 at Laddie's," reminded her husband. "Do you remember which house?"

"Beverly Drive, with trees," said the third Mrs. Richard Zanuck. "I'll be a little late, but I'll be there."

"Goodbye Fellini," said producer Dick Zanuck ("Jaws," "The Sting," "Cocoon"). Without a beat he turned to a visitor and added, "Lili unlocked in me a sense of humor most people don't think I possess. We have 10 big laughs a day around here -- 10, minimum."

It wasn't always so. Dick Zanuck, 54, has been, as he puts it, "forever a husband." Two previous marriages, nine years each, to two actresses (Lili Gentle, Linda Harrison) brought two daughters and two sons. "I've been accused of having a fixation for the letter 'L,' " cracked Zanuck, "Lili, Linda, Lili -- I never have to switch the monograms, on luggage or linens ..."

Zanuck had to shift in other ways, though, to accommodate Lili Fini, who's exactly 20 years his junior. Fini was fortuitously not an actress. Ten years ago, employed in marketing at Carnation, Lili was fed up with singledom in Los Angeles and on the brink of returning to Washington after only six months here. Enter, stormily, Dick Zanuck. They met on a blind date arranged by Zanuck's tennis partner, restaurateur Pierre Groleau.

"Lili was a tough girl when I met her," said the producer. "She looked like trouble. My first reaction was, 'Jesus, steer clear of this.' Why I went on, I dunno. It was starting to feel like love, and I guess I was willing to go through the mine fields."

"I was tough, I liked being tough," Lili Zanuck had said earlier that day as the couple sat side-by-side in their office. A generation apart, they are nevertheless like pieces of a broken frame that's been mended -- together they fit. "When you are single a long time you need a veneer to protect you from glibness, from the lines men hand you."

Added Zanuck: "The marriage succeeds because she is tough, was tough. Actually," Zanuck said as if making a discovery, "Lili still has strength but she's refined it."

"Look," simplified his wife of nine years, "Dick doesn't pussyfoot around. If you aren't tough you crumble. Because he expects perfection. And you gotta deliver."

"Deliver" is a word of many meanings in modern Hollywood. "Deliver" means playing stepmother, business partner, socialite, soulmate, fellow athlete. (Zanuck's daily five-mile runs are widely known; he says he hasn't missed one day in four years. The two of them also exercise, separately, with a private trainer in the workout room that separates their two offices.) "Dick is the kind of person who has a checklist. Nothing gives him greater glee than to take the checklist and see if you got to every item. So you feel a pressure to deliver, and yet you are rewarded."

"It's actually easier if your mate is tough," said Zanuck, "because she tunes in and keeps up."

Zanuck knows about people keeping up. He's the only son of the late 20th Century Fox czar Darryl Zanuck, the only mogul who won the Irving Thalberg Award twice and was generally considered to be the closest to Thalberg in terms of all-round talent and ability. If not fiber. In 1962, Zanuck senior installed Zanuck junior as the youngest-ever (28) corporate head of a studio. Seven years later, the father fired the son. Family politics mixed with Hollywood politics is not an unfamiliar conversation for Dick Zanuck. Not for nothing was his first job as a production assistant on his father's "The Sun Also Rises."

The subject of nepotism was inevitable, and Zanuck ran with it: "People said, 'There goes Dick, getting married again. Younger woman. Third try. Only this time he's going one step further. He's bringing her into the office.' I don't blame anyone for saying that. It's an obvious and natural thing to say. I wasn't thrown because as a young person I remember the same thing happening. Dad appointed me head of Fox against very strong objections from heavy hitters on the Fox board ... So when Lili came into our company I think I showed small potatoes in the courage department. Still, I'm probably better than most husbands at dealing with arched eyebrows."

Lili Zanuck (who coproduced "Cocoon" with her husband and his longtime partner David Brown) elaborated: "For two years here I did nothing visible, just watched and learned."

"I think we just wanted to be together," said her husband comfortably.

His wife nodded. "It was more about the marriage than work. One reason why this community is so tough on marriages is distance. People get separated by locations. But for us a movie shoot is a honeymoon. For two reasons. First we are working for a common goal. And secondly, we get to be together."

What follows is shocking to anyone versed in the ways and means of Hollywood intimacy, and the way it's offered and withdrawn almost simultaneously. "We haven't spent one night apart in nine years," said Lili Zanuck, raising an index finger as if to say, "Let me explain." If her husband has been described as "tightly controlled," his wife could be called "wound up and unwound both at once." She is nothing if not forthcoming.

"We're not in a race to be together every night," she said, "and it hasn't been conscious. We may not maintain it, but we've been together nightly through the death of two fathers, a lot of traveling, some prolonged illnesses, etc."

"For some couples that could spell poison," said Dick Zanuck, dryly. "That's why movie locations keep some couples together. The distance works in their favor."

(Almost no Hollywood couple escapes the "togetherness" issue. Creative solutions include Robert Stack's wife Rosemarie, who, during the TV years of "The Untouchables," reportedly brought her husband's lunch to the set every day. It made it harder for a guest-starlet to get near the star; the Stacks have been married for 33 years.)

It is simplistic to assume that Lili Fini simply saw a very eligible mate, got to him on a professional level, hooked him romantically -- and then obsessively never left his side.

"No," replied Dick Zanuck. "Lili was a loner, and I was a loner."

She concurred: "I lived alone, usually took meals alone, and was married only once, for 90 days. My nature was very independent, so you can see the dent we made in each other. The reason is, we don't play mind games like some couples do.

"But let's be clear. We don't necessarily have breakfast or lunch together.

"But we used to! In the early days at Universal we'd have lunch two or three times a week."

They looked at each other and smiled, privately. "That's when we were young and thrilled," said Dick Zanuck.

"Us? Complicated?" Julie Andrews laughed out loud for what seemed like minutes. Blake Edwards, her writer-director husband, was down the hall in his office. When the laughter stopped, a pinch of a smile came over Andrews' face. "Frankly, I'm surprised Blackie and I have been together as long as we have." Married in 1969, at the end of a decade in which both scaled Hollywood peaks, they survived "Darling Lili," the 1971 Edsel that almost bankrupted Paramount, and resurfaced only in the '80s (with "10" and "Victor/Victoria," among others). Even their detractors are awed by the team's survival.

"Therapy," replied Edwards, sticking his head in his wife's office. "It's our one-word answer for everything." For one five-year period Julie Andrews was in psychoanalysis five times a week; her husband has been going on and off most of his adult life, lately to Dr. Milton Wexler, who was Edwards' writing partner on "The Man Who Loved Women" and "That's Life."

(Wexler presides over group therapy in nearby Santa Monica, which Edwards attends, but Andrews doesn't. At Wexler's office on a recent afternoon, the soft-spoken doctor discussed not the Edwardses but the problem with modern therapy: "For the last 10 years of his life Freud spent an hour a day analyzing himself. The point was to know himself better. Now, though, there are too many therapies, too much narcissism, too much social chat about it. The question becomes: Who is stable enough to be analyzed?")

Obviously Andrews and Edwards fit the bill. Without poking fun at therapists (as Paul Mazursky and Woody Allen have done) the Edwards-Andrews output (especially "Victor/Victoria" and "10") reflect psychiatry in subtle ways. On consecutive afternoons of interviewing at their offices here, the couple was surprised to be told that Edwards had brought out Andrews' male side on screen -- and especially in "Victor/Victoria." They admitted that Edwards renovated Andrews' "image." Their effect on each other is both clear and complicated.

Said Andrews: "Last year, filming 'That's Life,' Blake said, 'Just be yourself.' And I was aghast. When actors say 'Who am I?' they usually mean it. I'm not an exception. Blake makes you dig, because he digs. What's happened to us as a couple borders on old-fashioned. You should see us at Gstaad." (The couple has a house at the Swiss ski village, the only place Andrews says she has ever felt "completely secure.")

"You mean at Christmas?" asked Edwards. "Our Christmases there will one day make a movie! The random parents, offspring, aunts both English and American, people ages 2 to 80. We live the rest of the year on their stories. Those kids, and their parent figures, let us be kids. And be a part of a family. And then Julie has become very good at taking care of the kid inside her."

"That's changed, darling, from knowing you. Because it had to change. And both of us getting help is why we've changed as a couple. Look," Andrews said sharply, her long arms outstretched, as if to punctuate her thought: "There are such discrepancies in our personalities -- we are such opposites -- that we had to agree on an investigation of ourselves. Blake was known as complicated and talented. I was known as sweet and talented. Labels are much too easy."

Is this Julie Andrews talking?

"I'm ambitious," she said strongly, "and I've worked most of my life. But I'll tell you one thing I know for sure. Marriage is the hardest work ever."

In terms of defending one's turf? Certainly this couple has different skills, not to mention different approaches. Even professionally speaking. Playboy once described them as Mary Poppins meets Godzilla. Whereas Andrews is primarily a pleaser, Edwards can be the opposite of gentle in business situations.

"It's not about defending your turf," answered Andrews. "It's about coming to terms with who you basically are. You put aside ideas of good and bad. You grow up with a certain mind-set, but you change it. In my youth I longed for family life."

Andrews means she went from being England's favorite four-octave teen-age touring soprano to a mother with a daughter now in her twenties, and two adopted daughters in elementary school. The image of her driving in the Malibu car pool is accurate, but somehow the notion of handling Blake Edwards sounds more difficult. Andrews does not disagree.

"Blake has softened up," she said carefully, looking at her husband from the corner of her eye.

"Okay, darling," said Edwards, verbally shadowboxing. "Let's say I'm less cynical."

"More tolerant of me, too. Last year I went off to England to make 'Duet for One,' leaving Blake, who was in the middle of three projects ... "

Here a dilemma emerged. The one about separation anxiety. In the last decade, and even in the late '60s, Andrews had worked primarily for Edwards. As a tactic for marital survival? A way to be together? Or were those just the jobs being offered? No performer is going to say, "those were the only offers," and nobody questions some of the Edwards-Andrews output. (In fact, his films without her, apart from the "Pink Panthers," are the most lambasted: "Blind Date," "A Fine Mess.")

Andrews fiddled with a finger sandwich and said, "A creative mother, or wife, who isn't allowed to be creative isn't going to kill her kids, or eat them, but she might damn well destroy herself. So last year I did two pictures back to back ("That's Life," "Duet for One") because I'm only comfortable in my skin if I can express myself. There are years when I stopped working, but I didn't feel trapped. That's where Blake and I part company."

Edwards kicked off a sneaker and made a hard admission. "I adore this lady," he said cautiously, "but if given the choice between doing what I do and staying home and being a husband -- it would not take three minutes to say I need the creative outlet more. If I had to stop working, I'd shrivel and die. Period."

Because Edwards is male must he work? And because Andrews is female can she take time to nurture children? Both husband and wife shook their heads.

"Forget male," said Edwards. "I just need a creative outlet. For sanity. I still need to play cowboys and Indians. Take it away, and I'm no good to anybody. I would be destroyed if I had to live without this lady. But probably more destroyed if I couldn't be creative. Without success I'd have thought of myself as a zero."

Though Andrews is rumored to be planning a Broadway return in a revival of Moss Hart's psychiatric musical "Lady in the Dark," her initial Broadway period ended after her marriage to scenic designer Tony Walton and before her marriage to Edwards. For a time in the '70s, she played movie-and-TV star while Edwards played househusband, working at home (mostly in Switzerland) on scripts. Probably one day that period will emerge as a movie. Fun and games it wasn't.

"I'd come back from working all day," recalled Andrews, "and Blackie would say 'Guess what happened at home today?' And I wouldn't want to hear it! I must say, though, the house was never better run ..."

"We play various roles in life," said Blake Edwards ambiguously.