FOR A TIME, JAMES STACY SEEMED a rakish figure who knew how to live on the edge. "He was fabulous," says Susan Reeves, an old friend who in 1962 met up with the handsome actor and his future wife, singer Connie Stevens, now 57, on a trip to Rome. The first night, after Stevens fell asleep, Stacy took off with Reeves. Stealing a motor scooter from a local butcher, they briefly zoomed through the hallways of her pension, then sped off to tour the city. "It was beautiful in the early morning hours," says Reeves, laughing at the memory.

Not all of Stacy's nights were so romantic. On Sept. 28, 1973, the actor—who was 35 and best-known for a gig on the CBS western Lancer—was racing his motorcycle through the Hollywood Hills just after midnight. Stacy, who was working as a kind of B-level Rock Hudson in movies opposite actresses such as Raquel Welch, had just picked up a 26-year-old waitress named Pia Isataki and was taking her for a spin. But, as they rounded a turn, a drunk driver swerved into them, knocking them onto the road. Isataki bled to death from a severed leg. Stacy survived but lost his left arm and leg.

As they would later with a stricken Christopher Reeve, Hollywood's elite rallied around the injured actor—who suddenly was more famous than ever. The next spring, his by then ex-wife Stevens helped stage a gala that raised $118,000 toward his expenses. "Because of you, I'll smile again," Stacy told the crowd, including Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand, as he stood at the podium on one crutch. "I'm gonna do good things with the money!"

It hasn't turned out that way. Even though he had a comeback as an actor—and earned two Emmy nominations—Stacy's life today is a shambles. Now 59, he sits in a cell in the Chino Men's Prison in California, where he is serving a six-year term for molesting an 11-year-old girl at his house in Meiners Oaks, 70 miles north of Los Angeles. At his trial in November, the judge also found Stacy guilty of "prowling"—terrorizing two teenage sisters by entering their nearby home. When he was led out of court in a wheelchair after the sentencing on March 5, Stacy—strands of gray hair hanging down the neck of his prison jumpsuit—smiled wanly and waved at the few family members who had come. "Oh, Daddy, no!" sobbed Heather Elias, 28, his daughter with his second wife, actress Kim Darby (True Grit), now 47. Later, in his cell, Stacy, at the very least a confused and self-contradictory man these days, wavered about taking responsibility for his actions. "It makes me look like a goddamn pedophile," he told PEOPLE. Then he added morosely, "I can't believe I'm stuck in this damn mess."

Stacy's life once seemed promising. Born Maurice Elias in East L.A., he was one of six children of Lois, a waitress, and Louie, a bookmaker. While his father took bets and dodged police, Maurice began working as an usher at a movie house, where, he says, "I first started loving films."

He dreamed of playing professional football. At 19, after a year at Glendale College, California, he was drafted by Canada's British Columbia Lions. Cut after two months, he took a bus to Manhattan to try acting. After being in a Pepsi commercial, he returned to L.A. for a spot as David Nelson's frat pal Fred on TV's The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. ("I had lines like, 'Hey, Rick, want a hamburger?' " he recalls.) In 1962, while shooting Summer Magic in Palm Springs, he met Stevens, who was filming Palm Springs Weekend. The two married the next year but divorced amicably in 1966. "Connie was always working, and I was always home," he says.

A year later, Stacy met Darby while filming a Gunsmoke episode. They married in March 1968 but divorced the next June after Darby told a judge Stacy "did not love me anymore." By then he had moved on to Lancer. After it went off the air in 1971, Stacy says, "things were coming my way." But while he was waiting, the accident occurred. To some, it seemed inevitable. "He was a wild character," says a Hollywood publicist who recalls Stacy as a drinker and a brawler. But he was also charismatic and inspired those attending his Hollywood gala. Their donations were augmented by $1.9 million he won in a 1976 lawsuit against the L.A. bar that had sold drinks to the driver who struck him.

After the accident, Stacy had probably the best roles of his career. He earned an Emmy nomination for playing a disabled Vietnam veteran in the 1977 TV movie Just a Little Inconvenience, and another in 1986 for his portrayal of a mugging victim on Cagney & Lacey. But all the while, he was drinking more heavily. "He had a dependency on alcohol and anger," says friend Eleanor Dudley, who had met Stacy when they were teenagers. After his accident, she says, his sweetly rebellious side turned into frustration and bitterness. Looking for a change, Stacy assumed custody of Heather in 1979 and moved the 9-year-old to his modest home in Meiners Oaks. "My dad has a big heart," says Heather, now a full-time mother who lives in the house with her 10-month-old son, Luke, and her boyfriend Lester Maxwell, a house painter. "It's just with the alcohol, it gets so distorted."

In the late 1980s, Stacy was usually too drunk to work. He moved about in an electric wheelchair and squandered his money on drinking holidays—basically he was known as a moody drunk. By last year he had few friends other than Patrice Loher, a nurse who lived nearby. On March 26, 1995, Loher's daughter, 11, visited Stacy while her mother was at work. He bought the girl a pizza in exchange for a massage, and he admits he touched her genitals. But Stacy insists, rather pathetically, that it wasn't molestation. "She wanted to learn acupressure," he says. "I touched her for five seconds."

He might have gotten off with probation, prosecutors say, but for what came next. On June 18, as a family with two girls, ages 12 and 16, moved into town, Stacy lingered outside the house—even after the parents asked him to leave. When they left to pick up more boxes, Stacy wheeled inside. "Come talk to me, I know you're in there!" he yelled in a drunken haze, and was later arrested. A week after, Stacy appeared in the backyard of Joan Archer, a schoolteacher, whose daughters, 10 and 11, were playing on a trampoline with a friend. She heard cries and ran outside to find Stacy racing toward them in his wheelchair. Again he was arrested, but prosecutors dropped the charge at his trial.

After pleading no contest last November, Stacy checked into a Ventura County rehab facility but was thrown out for trying to take control of the classes. In despair, he flew to Hawaii, where he drank a pint of whiskey and took a cab to the top of a 1,200-foot cliff for a suicide dive. He jumped but was rescued from a ledge 45 feet below. He remembers that he lay there, thinking, "I even screwed this up."

Arrested at the hospital and later flown back to Ventura County, he was sentenced to a long term for a first offender, in part because the judge agreed with the prosecution's assertion that he had a "propensity for pedophilia." Stacy insists his basic problem is drinking. "I mean, Jesus, God, rehab would have done it," he says. At other times, he vows that he's "ready to take a look at myself for the first time" and make some changes.

Susan Reeves believes change is possible. "God didn't want him to die," she says, "and so he's going to get a second chance." But the victim, now 12, still suffers. "She is angry. She feels embarrassed," says Loher, who says the trial upset her so much she couldn't go to school all the next week.

Stacy has been down before, but this time there are no galas planned and no celebrities coming to visit. He can attend daily AA meetings in jail, but for the most part he is left alone with his thoughts—perhaps the most agonizing punishment of all. "Every once in a while I hit reality," says Stacy, "and I just scream, 'God, no!' "

CURTIS RIST
JEANNE GORDON in Meiners Oaks

  • Contributors:
  • Jeanne Gordon.