After 22 years, the divorce didn’t work out for Sagan Lewis and Tom Fontana.
They tried to maintain a severed union. And for more than two decades, they were successful. Lewis, a former actress, lived in the verdant tangle of Hawaii and then Arizona; he moved to the cobblestones of New York’s West Village.
She had a child on her own; he wrote and produced some of the most hard-edge, violent shows on television. They saw each other on occasion and still loved each other, but were not, emphatically, a couple.
And yet, something kept bringing them together again. Finally, as if orchestrated by a Hollywood show-runner, in July, the woman who found comfort in the red rocks of Sedona and the man who lives in a 10,000-square-foot building in Manhattan, remarried.
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“I realized I loved Sagan more than having all this space to myself,” said Fontana, 64, the Emmy- and Peabody-award winning writer, producer and creator of TV shows including “Homicide,” “Oz” and “The Borgias.” “By this point in our lives, all that crud — career, ego, agenda, being obstinate because you think you’re right — is gone. There’s no more testing.”
Others have followed their cycle of marriage, divorce and remarriage — to each other. Phil Collins, the chronicler of failed relationships, recently reconciled with his third ex-wife, Orianne Cevey, after an eight-year separation (and $48 million divorce).
“Well, you know, we realized we made a mistake,” Collins told “CBS This Morning.” He recalled that his son Matthew from that marriage told him: “He just wished that it would happen. I was very moved.” The singer added, “It’s simple: We missed each other.”
They join the ranks of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner; Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson; Judith Sheindlin (Judge Judy) and Jerry Sheindlin; and Marie Osmond and Stephen Craig, who became her third (and first) husband.
The idea of a marriage reprise has seeped into popular culture, too, “The Parent Trap” notwithstanding. In the 2009 film “It’s Complicated,” the divorced couple, played by Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, consider reconciling, much to their children’s dismay.
“Very, very few try to start over again,” said Nancy Kalish, a former psychology professor at California State University, Sacramento, who has been studying divorced couples for decades.
Most divorced people “don’t ever want to speak to each other again, and some struggle to do so for the good of their children,” she said. Of the ones who do reconcile, she said, those who have been most successful in rebuilding their former marriages were much younger when they parted and had been separated a long time.
“Many people don’t ever account for the fact that after the intensity of the separation and divorce dies down, there will come a time when they'll actually miss their spouse,” said Michele Weiner-Davis, a marriage therapist and director of the Divorce Busting Center in Boulder, Colo. “And they think, what could I have done differently? That’s when they begin to wonder whether they made a mistake.”
That’s what happened with April and Mike Davidson, of Grand Ledge, Mich. They met when she was 18 and he was 25; by the time she was 30, she was the mother of five.
“It sounds so cliche, but I completely lost who I was,” said April, now 38. “I became ‘Mike’s wife,’ and ‘so and so’s mom.’ We’d put the kids to bed and then argue.”
She went back to school, made friends of her own and took a job. She was happier, she said, but her newfound independence threatened her husband.
They tried couples therapy to no avail; in 2009, they divorced, negotiating the terms of their split in a draft Google document. They amicably co-parented and dated other people.
But one day she caught a Facebook photograph of her ex-husband’s new girlfriend, a woman similar to the person she had become. “She was my age, a businesswoman, superconfident, and I was like, what?” Davidson said. “He had found someone like me. I felt like we failed, both of us.
She was flooded with rage, she said, and called her ex and vented. But instead of lobbing daggers back at her, he invited her out for coffee. She went.
“There was this spark that scared the hell out of me,” she said. “I hadn’t looked a him without bitterness in years.” He walked her back to her car, and as if propelled by some supernatural force, she leaned over and kissed him.
In June 2012, three years after their divorce was final, he moved into the house Davidson had purchased following the dissolution of their union.
“People really can change through loss,” said Wendy Paris, author of “Splitopia: Dispatches From Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.” “They don’t change through criticism in a contentious marriage.”
“After divorce, your ex still has your words in her head,” Paris said. “She could change into someone you get along with a lot better. Also, you might change. You could become more confident and reconnected to important parts of yourself once you’re no longer locked in the adversarial position-taking that often develops in a bad marriage. That confidence or clarity can translate into being more generous and magnanimous of spirit, more accepting.”
Weiner-Davis concurs, saying, “Very often they come to the relationship with a new maturity and a willingness to learn how things got in disrepair to begin with, and they’re more willing to take a look at what each person can do differently so that they don’t find themselves in the same position again.”
Logistics and practicalities play a role; so does sheer exhaustion. Exploring the scintillating world of Tinder may seem appealing to someone who’s been in a committed relationship for eons. But after a while, they may conclude that the devil they know just may be better than the devil they don’t know (or, more pointedly, don’t know as well).
Then there are financial considerations, especially when children are involved. Tiffany Beverlin, the founder and chief executive of Dreams Recycled, a marketplace and community for those who are divorced, regularly talks to couples who have reunited.
“It’s hard to be a single parent, responsible for child care and house and mortgage,” she said. “Trying to blend two families and two schedules is such a challenge.”
And then there’s the fact that people grow in different ways, and their needs and wants don’t always align — until, miraculously, they do.
This was the case with Fontana and Lewis, who met in 1978, when she auditioned for the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, and he was the “artistic director’s slave.”
They lived together in New York, and then Fontana got a writing job in Los Angeles on the show “St. Elsewhere,” which was produced by Bruce Paltrow, who wrote a part for Lewis on the show.
On Dec. 18, 1982, Fontana and Lewis married in the backyard of the Paltrow family’s home in Santa Monica, Calif.
The couple continued for a few years, each growing dissatisfied. Not with each other, but with their circumstances. Fontana was unhappy with Los Angeles. “I found it empty,” he said.
Lewis said she found herself less career focused and more spiritually depleted. But New York wasn’t her dream; she was inspired by hiking the Santa Monica Mountains and staring at the Pacific Ocean.
When they finally came to the conclusion in 1993 that they should split, they did it with elan, with a Final Anniversary Party. At the bottom of their invitation was this request: “If you must bring a gift, bring two.”
“I was sad when we split up,” Lewis said. “Tom’s such a great human being. It was like, ‘Why am I needing to do something else when I have this great guy?’ If he’d been a jerk, it would have been easy. It was hard for both of us but we knew it was necessary. He understood that I needed to explore other worlds.”
Lewis moved to Maui, and then Sedona, where she taught acting workshops and became program director at the Sedona International Film Festival. About three years after she and Fontana divorced, she discovered she was pregnant. It was a shock: She and Fontana had been told that she was unable to have children.
Lewis always planned to raise her son, Jade Scott Lewis, alone. But Fontana was a part of his life. The three spent some holidays together in New York or Omaha, where she was born, and it was always comfortable. And then a few years ago, after they visited in New York, Fontana found himself missing her more than usual.
“Jade was coming to NYU for grad school, I was here,” he said. “I thought, why weren’t we a family?”
At Christmas 2014, he proposed. She accepted, and they were remarried in July 2015. The couple then took the wedding celebration on tour, with parties in New York, Los Angeles, Omaha and Buffalo, where Fontana has family. They have upcoming events in Sedona and Maui.
Their grand New York party took place Dec. 19 at the Tribeca Rooftop — 35 years and one day after their first wedding. The invitation was an updated version of their original invitation of the two of them kissing, along with this phrase: “After 22 years, the divorce didn’t work out.”
Both stress they wouldn’t have had it any other way. Lewis attributes Fontana’s artistic prowess to the split. “If Tom and I had stayed happily married and not gone our separate ways, I’m not sure those shows would have happened,” she said. “I think in his being alone, in life without a mate, I think he really explored the edges of humanity in his writing mind. He went places that I may have said, ‘Oh, don’t do that.’”
Fontana agreed with her assessment. After the demise of their marriage, he was “totally adrift.” His father had just died; he was freshly divorced; his first TV job was winding down. “I was sort of liberated in a way to go like: ‘Who are you? And what are the parts or yourself that you need to figure out?’”
“When you’re going to write shows like ‘Homicide’ and ‘Oz,’ you are testing the extremes in life,” he said. “You’re going to the darkest place. But there was redemption on both shows, too.”
Davidson also believes that divorcing was the best thing she and her husband could have done (they got re-engaged in the spring of 2013; while they refer to each other as “husband” and “wife,” they have not yet legalized the titles).
“We just raced through life from 21 to 31,” she said. “We lived such an epically fast rate that there was no time for growth. We were both teaching our kids this is what marriage looks like: two people who are unhappy. I don’t want them to feel that way.”
Still, their reconciliation wasn’t that smooth. Friends and family were confused: They had taken sides, but were now being told to forget everything they had heard about the other person.
Their daughter Josephine, who was 9 when her parents separated and 12 when they reconciled, was furious.
“I asked why they would get divorced if only to get back together,” said Josephine, now 14. “They said they just needed a break from each other and they’re able to be more compatible now. I’m definitely glad now. They seem happier than they did before. But I thought it was kind of dumb to split up and have the kids get used to that situation and then randomly get back together without any notice.”
Davidson said: “Our relationship started with a power imbalance, which continued during our marriage, even through ample evidence that it was unhealthy. When it finally fell apart, I was unwilling to make the change that was needed. Instead of embracing equilibrium, I clutched tighter than ever to hold on to control. It took a long time to understand this, and it’s certainly not something I’m proud of, but it was an important lesson. Equality is the foundation of our new relationship.”
“Anything that happened that reminded me of the past brought up angry feelings, and we had to experience all that again,” Davidson said. “But instead of glossing over it, we had to hash it out. It was messy, but good messy. Sometimes you have to wade in the messy a little bit to come out the other side.”