IN 1989, KRISTINA MALANDRO FACED A terrible dilemma. Her husband, Jack Wagner, had disappeared two years earlier and was presumed dead. She had grieved, was planning to remarry and start a new life. Suddenly, Jack returned, with a wild tale of being held hostage by Soviet agents. The choice: Stay with her new fiancé or turn back the clock to be with her first love.

Since all this happened on ABC's General Hospital, true love won out: Malandro's Felicia Cummings returned to Wagner's Frisco Jones, much to the delight of the soap's fans. But unbeknownst to all but a few of the actors' close friends, romance was blooming in the real world as well. In 1990, Wagner and Malandro had a son, Peter; three years later they were married, and Malandro changed her name to Kristina Wagner. "We didn't start seriously dating until I got pregnant," says Kristina, 33. She pauses to consider the sound of this, then corrects herself. "Well, maybe a couple of months before. There was always a strong passion, and the passion grew into a more respectful, loving relationship. He's always been my true love."

Spoken like a soap diva. Jack, 36, has a less romantic vision of their life together with Peter, now 5, and Harrison, who turns 1 on Dec. 18. "It's a very funny household," he says. "More like a sitcom than a soap opera."

A self-described class clown, Jack is a notorious jokester on the set of Melrose Place, where for the past two seasons he has played the sometimes villainous Dr. Peter Burns. (Last season, Jack's character tried to murder Heather Locklear's Amanda; this season, he has apparently fallen in love with her.) He purposely calls cast members by the wrong names during rehearsals and sticks out his tongue at costars when he's out of camera range and they're trying to deliver their lines. "He should be a standup comedian," says Josie Bissett (who plays Jane Mancini). "He makes me laugh so hard I can't even do scenes." This may be part of his plan. "It should be called Jack's Place," he says. "Too many people on the show! I keep calling [producer] Aaron Spelling and saying, 'Jack here. We've got to chop this cast down. I've only got four or five scenes a show.' And he goes, 'Jack who?' "

Wagner didn't always have acting ambitions. Born in Washington, Mo., the son of Peter Wagner, a car salesman who died in 1990, and his wife, Scotty ("she's alive and well and still 28," says Jack), he took up golf at age 10 and spent his teen years planning on becoming a pro. Performing on stage was just an extracurricular activity for him at the local St. Gertrude School—though he won raves. "He has always been an entertainer," says his friend Jim Powers, a former teacher at St; Gertrude who is now his personal manager. "He was really a leader of the school."

After attending the University of Missouri for a year—and winning the state golf championship—he applied for a golf scholarship to the University of Arizona in 1980. "Fifty young guys all thought they were going to be Jack Nicklaus," he says. He lost out. In frustration, he auditioned for the drama program—and won a full scholarship. From that point on, golf took second place. "I decided that I have much more control over what I do on stage," says Jack, "than whether or not my golf ball goes out-of-bounds when it hits a tree."

The day after graduating in 1982, Wagner drove to Los Angeles, where he found work as a tour guide at Universal Studios while auditioning for parts. After a brief stint in the shortlived cable-TV soap A New Day in Eden, he won the role of Frisco Jones—and met Kristina. "We had this scene where we fell into a bathtub together," Jack recalls. "That's when I realized how beautiful she was."

Still, Kristina says, "there were a lot of emotional ups and downs for us." In 1990, they began living together in Beverly Hills, later moving to a three-story Mediterranean-style home in Bel Air, where they live today. Two years after Peter was born, they split up, sharing custody of their son for eight months. In early 1993 they reconciled, and Jack moved back in. They won't discuss reasons for their breakup but insist they always cared for each other.

It wasn't until that December that they were finally ready to get married. Jack rented a Learjet, and they flew to Lake Tahoe, Calif., where they exchanged vows in a private ceremony at Love Wedding Chapel while Kristina's mother babysat Peter back in L.A. Their first honeymoon consisted of one night in Las Vegas; the next morning, they flew back to L.A. to work. A week later, they flew to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for a longer, Christmastime honeymoon.

Kristina says she wants her children to have as carefree a childhood as she did. She was raised in a working-class section of Indianapolis, the daughter of electric-company employee Leonard Crump and his wife, Carolyn, a home-maker. (The name Malandro comes from a brief first marriage that she refuses to talk about.) "We didn't have a lot of money," she says, "but my family made the most out of what we had."

In 1984, during her junior year as a theater major at Indiana University, she drove to Chicago, one of several cities where GH was holding auditions. "I drove three hours there and three hours home," she recalls. As soon as she returned, she got a callback and had to make the trip again the next day. But she did get the part. She soon left school and moved to L.A.

Although she and Wagner tried to keep their romance a secret, GH costar Lynn Herring (Lucy Coe) says most cast members could see that "there was a lot of chemistry" between the two. "I still see that when they're together," Herring says. "It's lasted a long time."

The strength of their relationship helped get them through the greatest crisis of their marriage. In 1994, Kristina had a miscarriage after a couple of months. "We were so sad," she says. For solace, she turned to her favorite childhood pastime—camping. "Jack's a golfer; he's used to resorts," she says. "But he gave in." They took their son and headed for a cabin in the Sequoia National Park. It quickly turned into low comedy. Because Peter was in the midst of toilet training, they brought his portable potty. "In the middle of the night," remembers Kristina, laughing, "I heard the sound of pee. I saw Jack going in the potty seat! He wouldn't go in the woods."

Their offscreen partnership may be thriving, but Jack says they have no plans to work together again despite a GH guest stint last year. "As a couple, it's great when scenes click," he says. "But when they don't, you have to carry that home. I don't think it's healthy to work together day in and day out." Besides, he has progress to make at his new address. "The male characters on Melrose aren't very strong," he says. "So I can make an impact. I'm not going to let this guy be stepped on."

To keep in shape for Melrose's bare-chested love scenes, he works out five days a week and diets rigorously. "Heather Locklear goes right for the Doritos and hot dogs," he says, "and I scavenge around like a damn bird, eating fruits and nuts with no salt." ("My nickname around here is Shamu," he says, grabbing at his nonexistent gut.)

A regular since 1991 on the Celebrity Golf Association tour (with, among others, Bryant Gumbel, Daniel Baldwin and Maury Povich), Wagner hopes his Melrose exposure will help restart his long-dormant singing career. (His ballad, "All I Need," sung to Kristina on GH, hit No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart in 1985.) He would also like to make a movie someday. Kristina already has one film in her credits—1994's Double Dragon.

Meeting the demands of two careers and two children is never easy, but Kristina says their shooting schedules give them more family time than most couples. Kristina usually works three days a week on GH while Jack works two to four on Melrose. Even so, leaving their kids with their nanny in the morning can be painful, says Kristina. "My oldest son is always asking me, 'Mom, are you going to work today?' " Jack and Kristina agree that no more children are likely, though Jack says nothing is definite. "Life can change any time," he says earnestly, "sorta like a game of golf."

DAN JEWEL
JEANNE GORDON in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Jeanne Gordon.