Perry King is the real thing. Others may study The Official Preppy Handbook to pass for bluebloods, but King was born with designer genes. Shake Perry's ancestral tree and out falls a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a Civil War general and the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. So what's this consummate WASP doing starring as a streetwise California detective in Riptide, NBC's new hit series? "Riptide requires me to rough up my edges," says King, 35, who plays Cody, a former military policeman now fighting crime in a pink helicopter. To land the unlikely role, King masked his clean-cut face with a mustache. "Cody is a pretty tough character and a lot of things I'm not, so I needed something to make me look harder," he says. "In my own life, I'm kind of a prep, as much as I try to avoid it."

Along with Simon & Simon and Hard-castle and McCormick, Riptide, conceived by A-Team creator Stephen Cannell, signals a new trend of buddy-buddy programs on TV. Cody's partner is a fellow former MP, played by Joe Penny. In preparation for Riptide, Perry studied "the best buddy movie ever made," Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. "You feel that love they have for each other, but it's never openly demonstrated. That's the kind of relationship that Joe Penny and I look for in the series," says Perry, who resembles Robert Redford with his sun-streaked hair and blue eyes. The chemistry between Penny and King apparently works off camera too. "I'll start a sentence, and he'll finish it," says Penny.

Despite his preppy demeanor and impressive genealogy, King's roots are surprisingly small town. The son of a surgeon, King was born in Alliance (pop. 24,000), Ohio. At St. Paul's boarding school in Concord, N.H., he was "miserable" but found his vocation after acting in a production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. After graduating with a degree in drama from Yale in 1970, Perry went to the Juilliard School in New York. Six months later he was offered roles in the films Slaughterhouse Five and The Possession of Joel Delaney. Those options posed a dilemma: continue his education or start his career? King consulted John Houseman, the crusty head of Juilliard's drama department, who tendered sage advice. Recalls King, "Mr. Houseman said, 'Very simple. An actor should work when he can work and study when he can't. Take the jobs.' " Flushed with success, King "was told by everybody I worked with that I was about to be a major star, which I stupidly believed." His perspective was restored while playing an Israeli opposite Peter Ustinov in a never-released film. Says Perry, "One day, I went to Ustinov and said, 'What do you think of an accent?' He said, 'Was that an accent you were doing? I thought you had a speech impediment.' "

For his next film role, a street hood n The Lords of Flatbush, Perry perfected a Brooklyn accent—to no further avail. After Flatbush, King moved to California in 1973 with his college-sweetheart wife, Karen, and their daughter, Louise. "In New York, I was completely broke all the time, and with a wife and baby that can be very scary," he says.

The marriage later fell apart out west. "I was 19 when I got married, and Karen was 22," says King. "I think we lost the reasons that had brought us together." After his 1980 separation from Karen, now a lawyer in Los Angeles, King found a new enthusiasm for fatherhood. "When we broke up," he says, "it suddenly became clear to me that my daughter was something I could lose, that I had to work to deserve her." Louise, now 13, spends weekends with her dad in his rented one-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills. King's prospect for a second marriage recently disintegrated when he and actress Stacey Nelkin ended their three-year relationship. "We decided we were not appropriate for each other. The fact that we were in love was not enough."

Despite disappointments in love, Perry is reveling in his newfound stardom. "I'm enjoying the hell out of the series," he says. He acknowledges that Riptide is not exactly Shakespeare—or even Hill Street Blues. But as he notes, "There aren't a lot of parts for preppys," and for this blue-blood, working steadily is the best revenge.