"DADDY, I CANT GET THESE BRAIDS OUT. CAN YOU help me?" Lance Henriksen fumbles with the tiny strands of hair on his 5-year-old daughter Alcamy's Barbie doll. A veteran screen tough guy, with 30 films in the past 20 years, he looks more at ease wielding a revolver in the current thriller Jennifer 8, in which he and fellow cop Andy Garcia track down a serial killer who preys on blind women.

The new role is a walk on the right side of the law for Henriksen, 52, who normally specializes in playing villains, misfits and otherworldly beings. He was an agent of Satan's in 1978's Damien: Omen II, a vampire gang leader in the 1987 cult classic Near Dark and, most notably, Bishop, the plucky android in 1986's Aliens and last summer's Alien 3.

The manufactured drama of these stories, though, pales beside the harsh realities of his own life. An angry, rootless child of divorce, he hitchhiked across the country at 12, dropped out of school in eighth grade, accumulated a year in jail on vagrancy arrests by the time he was 21, and until his mid-30s, could not even read the movie dialogue he was paid to speak.

Today, divorced since 1988, he lives high on a hill in California's San Fernando Valley in a sunlit, spacious house of his own design, the loving father of Alcamy (a play on "alchemy"), his only child. It is a far more glamorous—and settled—fate than might have been foretold for the boy born in New York City in 1940 to merchant seaman James Henriksen and his 17-year-old wife, Margueritte, a waitress. Lance was 2 when his parents split. At 5, he began running away from home and a succession of stepfathers. "I wasn't exactly easy to get along with," he says, "and they didn't want a bright little kid around—especially somebody else's."

Margueritte, who married three other men, says, "In all those marriages, I never stayed longer than a year. I took the kids [Lance and his half brother, Kurt Kochek] and ran off."

Starting when Lance was 9, they traveled through the South as Margueritte looked for waitressing jobs. At one point staying with his father (whose nickname, Henriksen recalls, was Icewater because "he was so emotionally cold"), at other times farmed out to relatives, Lance attended more schools than he can remember. "He hated school," says Margueritte. "He was always daydreaming, escaping, plotting to do something else." Henriksen admits he had a short attention span, which may explain why he could not read—"not a word," he says—a handicap he concealed even from his mother.

On the road in his teens, he found odd jobs—shrimp fisherman and fruit picker among them—and often wound up sleeping in boxcars and (when arrested as a vagrant) jails.

Henriksen virtually drifted into acting as well. He was around 30 at the lime and living in Manhattan, where he spotted an off-Broadway theater marquee touting Eugene O'Neill's Sea Plays. Seeking a job backstage, he so impressed the producers with tales of his wanderlust that they decided to give him a role. Because he couldn't read, he got a friend to recite the script into a tape recorder, which he would replay until he had his part memorized. The trick helped him get other roles. But while building his career, he was secretly teaching himself how to read. He would have a girlfriend recite newspaper articles while he followed along. Today not only can he read scripts he has also written his own—in longhand—and even sold a few unproduced screenplays. But he still finds books too difficult to read "for fun," he says, and limits his efforts to potential movie properties (such as Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire).

Getting a grip on his emotions required far more tutoring. "I had trouble trying to contain the enormous rage I was sitting on," he says. "I never learned self-discipline as a child." As a young man, he would brawl with strangers and grow enraged over minor frustrations. "It was that punching walls b.s. that got me into trouble all my life," he says.

He credits psychotherapy, begun shortly after his daughters birth in 1987, with helping him "set limits and function with other people. I could never go back to the way I had been," he says. Besides, daughter Alcamy made him realize "it was time to grow up."

Yet six months alter she was born, Henriksen's marriage broke up. A first-time husband, Lance blames himself for rushing his wife, Mary Jane, to the altar. "I had no idea of the reality of marriage," he says. "I was just buying into all the love-song lyrics." Though Alcamy lives in L.A. with her mother, who is studying to be a massage therapist, her father shares joint custody, spending up to four days a week with her whenever he's not on a film set. Together they paint and make pottery in Lance's backyard studio, where he is a prolific amateur artist.

In the early '80s, trying to mend fences with his own father, whom he hadn't seen in 15 years, Lance traveled to the Florida trailer park where James Henriksen had been living alone and in retirement. "He was not in good shape," his son recalls. "He had let himself go completely." Henriksen immediately called his mother in Berkeley, Calif, (where she was working as a fraternity housemother and chef while attending Mills College in nearby Oakland), and persuaded her to take in his dad. Ten years ago the couple remarried.

Henriksen is still looking for his own happy ending. A year-long relationship with Leslie Nielsen's daughter. Maura, fell apart last summer. ("No particular reason," he says. "It was just lime to break up.") But remarriage and a family remain real goals, as does the chance someday to play "some sweet characters." Anyone watching his creased-leather glower ("God gave me a face like a tractor print") turn to a smile when he's in Alcamy's company knows those gentler roles are not really a reach. "Alcamy was the beginning of my real life. says Henriksen. "She was my ticket to joining the world."

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
MARIE MONEYSMITH in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Marie Moneysmith.