When Nancy Balbirer and Howard Morris met as drama students at New York University in 1983, they developed a crush on each other that almost led to romance.“I loved him immediately, and I practically threw myself at him,” said Ms. Balbirer, then an 18-year-old freshman. “He was cute, funny and very smart, and he had the most exciting and fabulous energy of anyone I had ever known.”Mr. Morris, then a 19-year-old sophomore, was equally smitten. “She was extremely attractive, sexy and very outgoing,” he said. “We really hit it off.”Despite their instant chemistry, the aspiring actors — she from Weston, Conn., and he from Newton, Mass. — shared nary a kiss.

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“The problem was me,” said Mr. Morris, who is now 51 and based in Los Angeles, where he is the executive producer and co-creator of the Netflix comedy series “Grace and Frankie.”“I absolutely wanted to date her,” he said, “but she was more mature than I was and sort of intimidated me. I guess I wasn’t ready for her emotionally.”They settled on being friends, which frustrated Ms. Balbirer, who is now 50 and a New York-based writer and actress. “Howie always had a girlfriend,” she said, but “that girlfriend was never me.”They spent the next few years honing their respective crafts — Mr. Morris eventually delved into playwriting — and bouncing around campus in Lower Manhattan, often enjoying lunch together. “Nancy was always nice enough to pay,” Mr. Morris said, adding “because I was always broke.”As the end of college approached, his crush persisted, but so did his inability to step up and express his feelings. Rather than cause a scene, he chose to create one. He wrote a school play — “about a guy with a broken heart,” he said — called “Almost Romance,” a comedy in which he cast himself in the lead and Ms. Balbirer as his love interest. (The four-person play also featured a fellow drama student named Jeremy Piven, of future “Entourage” fame.)“How would you feel about making out with Howard Morris, the lead actor in my play?” Mr. Morris asked Ms. Balbirer. If only for a scripted New York minute, she was thrilled to become his leading lady.

“It was a lot of fun,” she said. “My goodness, I didn’t have to do any acting when it came to making out with Howie.”In addition to what he called “the perfect kiss,” Mr. Morris was soon reaping other benefits from his production. A director who had seen and enjoyed the play took it to the Manhattan Punchline Theater, which had a reputation for producing comedy writers.“Almost Romance,” with Fisher Stevens and Helen Slater in the lead roles, ran for nearly seven weeks to favorable reviews, and by the time the final curtain closed, Mr. Morris had an agent and some name recognition in the industry.In 1991, he moved to Los Angeles to join the staff of the HBO sitcom “Dream On.” He was soon noticed by Marta Kauffman, a television writer and producer who had created that show and was also a creator of “Friends.” (Ms. Kauffman and Mr. Morris eventually created “Grace and Frankie,” which debuted last year.)With his writing career on the rise, Mr. Morris married in May 1994, which became a bittersweet time for an old castmate, who was still single.“At that point, I had kind of resigned myself to the fact that even though I felt we were perfect for each other, Howie would never feel that way,” Ms. Balbirer said, adding, “I just figured it was time to move on.” Four months later, she did just that, moving — of all places — to Los Angeles to pursue acting. She eventually landed parts including three episodes of “Seinfeld,” and resumed her old role as frequent lunch partner of Mr. Morris.

“We clearly still had strong feelings for each other, but it was completely platonic,” she said.They remained close friends, and in 1999, the same year Ms. Balbirer wrote “Take Your Shirt Off and Cry” — a book, she said, “about the perils of being a woman in show business” — she invited Mr. Morris to her own wedding in Los Angeles, which he attended.“Though I was happily married, I must admit to feeling a tinge of sadness that day,” he said.By 2002, Mr. Morris, who had a 2-year-old son, was in the throes of a divorce. That same year, Ms. Balbirer, whose career focus had shifted to writing, moved back to New York with her husband. “Just when I needed my best friend the most, she was leaving,” Mr. Morris said. She became what he called “my email shoulder to lean on.”In March 2011, it was Mr. Morris’s turn to lend a shoulder as Ms. Balbirer separated from her husband, with whom she had a 6-year-old daughter. “We were calling it a temporary separation at that time,” she said. But by July, her separation became permanent. To make matters worse, her beloved dog, Ira, died shortly afterward.“I was feeling numb and going through therapy, just trying to figure out what was going on in my life,” she said. “It was like I was trapped in a bad dream.”Continue reading the main story

Two months later, Mr. Morris went to New York to attend the wedding of a friend and visited Ms. Balbirer to both console her and profess his love for her, hoping that the stage had now been set for their long-awaited romance.

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