As Rev. Eric Camden on TV's 7th Heaven, Stephen Collins plays a compassionate clergyman and father of seven. You might say the real Collins, 51, is cut from the same cloth. In fact, once a month, he. dons the white robe of a lay eucharistic minister and serves wine during communion at Episcopalian services at his West Los Angeles church. Eventually, he says, he'll do the same for shut-ins and the bedridden. "I guess life does imitate art!" he adds.

And how. Consider his television persona: Reverend Camden, Collins's character, is low-key, thoughtful and strong on moral principles, yet hip enough to hang out at the neighborhood pool hall. "He plays a minister of today," involved in social and religious issues and people's lives, says executive producer Aaron Spelling. Ditto Collins, whose life revolves around his wife, actress Faye Grant, 41, and daughter Kate, 9, in their 5,000-square-foot home in Brentwood, Calif. Then there's his devotion to religion and good works, a commitment that took the self-described former Christmas Eve churchgoer by surprise. "It just happened one day out of the blue," he recalls of his sudden desire to find out more about God. "Just something inside me that said, go to church this weekend." Later, after being invited to join the eucharistic minister program, he thought, "I love this parish. I've never felt so involved at a parish before," and agreed to participate.

These days, Collins's combination of TV work with Sunday deeds enhances both. "Putting some of [my clerical work] into my role on 7th Heaven is very meaningful for me," he says. "It's a good fit." Just ask Heaven's creator and executive producer, Brenda Hampton, who notes that Collins is "not just the dad on the show, he's the dad on the set," prone to quizzing Beverley Mitchell, 18, (Heaven's Lucy Camden) about her boyfriends to make sure their intentions are honorable.

The youngest of three sons of airline executive Cyrus Collins, now 81, and homemaker Madeleine, 79, Collins grew up in the leafy New York City suburb of Hastings-on-Hudson. "I was shy as a kid," he says. "I was born cross-eyed in my right eye and I had terrible buck teeth. I had these big Coke bottle glasses [which] they thought could fix my eyes." Eye surgery corrected his vision at age 4; the geekyness didn't fade until he was 12. "That's when all these girls started to make a fuss about me," he adds.

Collins, who discovered his love for acting by performing in high school plays, graduated in 1969 from Massachusetts's Amherst College with a degree in English. He began landing parts in New York City theaters soon after. Although he was offered the Ryan O'Neal role in the film Love Story, a theater commitment prevented his taking it. (Collins says he has no regrets because he gained valuable stage experience.) He went on to play Nixon aide Hugh Sloan Jr. in 1976's All the President's Men and Capt. Willard Decker in 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But it's on television that Collins has flourished, as John F. Kennedy in the 1991 miniseries A Woman Named Jackie and as a pilot on Tales of the Gold Monkey, a 1982 series in which he met his future wife. "I thought, either he's gay or a complete jerk, because he can't be as fabulous as he looks and be available!" recalls Grant. After a two-year courtship, they married in April 1985 in New York City. (Collins was married for eight years to writer Marjorie Weinman before their divorce in 1978.) When his wife became pregnant, Collins played the guitar for their unborn daughter at night. "He was incredibly attentive," Grant says.

He was also prolific. During the actor's bachelor days, he began a love affair with writing by sending letters to a friend while on the Munich, made-for-TV movie set of Inside the Third Reich. His pen pal, actor Christopher Guest, urged him to try his hand at short stories. By last year he had published two novels: Eye Contact and the psychosexual thriller Double Exposure. "I'm interested in sex. I like to write about it," he says.

And how does that jibe with his religious beliefs and his role on a television show applauded for its uplifting values? The answer can be found on his personal Web site (www.stephen-collins.com). "Dear 7th Heaven fans: Double Exposure was written by Stephen Collins—not Eric Camden. It's a quick, fun summer read, but it's not appropriate for kids or teens."

Larry Sutton
Paula Yoo in Los Angeles

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  • Paula Yoo.