He grew up on-camera and then on the courts

EVERY THURSDAY NIGHT, VINCE VAN Patten gathers around a Beverly Hills poker table with his father, Dick, star of the '70s TV series Eight Is Enough, and a few show-business friends. Ask him how much he bets and he flashes an enigmatic smile. Ask him what he likes about poker and his face lights up. "It's such a psychological game," he says. "It's the best game I know because you don't have to have the best cards to win. The element of the bluff is so important."

Ten years ago he might have been bluffing himself. Under pressure to maintain a spot in the upper reaches of the tennis world, Van Patten reached his breaking point. He developed agoraphobia, the fear of public places, a condition that would sideline him for two years. He has since dealt with that problem and found his way back in the public eye. Since last year, Van Patten, 38, has had a recurring role on the syndicated series Baywatch as dermatologist Tom Morella, and last year he wrote, produced and starred in the independent feature film The Break, a Rocky-type story set in the tennis world.

And even when he's not playing poker, Van Patten has a full house. With the arrival of their second child, Vince Jr., seven months ago (their older son, Richard, is 3), Van Patten and his wife of seven years, actress Betsy Russell, 30, have filled all three bedrooms of their San Fernando Valley home. "Having these children has changed me so much," he says. "It's so joyous and innocent and beautiful that you realize nothing else is really important. You just have to find that balance."

Van Patten certainly seems to have found his. "Vinnie is the kind of guy who wins you over by charm and smarts," says actress Rae Dawn Chong, his costar in The Break. "He doesn't shout, he's not a screamer, he's not pushy, not full of himself. Then, lo and behold, you're working late for no money and you're still like, 'Isn't this the nicest guy?' Then you have to say, 'This man is brilliant.' "

His star began to shine early. According to his mother, Pat, a former June Taylor dancer, the youngest of her three sons "was just perfect" as a 9-year-old doing commercials. "He got practically every one he went up for." When the family moved to Los Angeles in 1970, Vince made a successful transition to TV—landing major roles in Apple's Way and Three for the Road.

However, acting was never the only thing in his life. Starting around age 9, Van Patten also developed a love for tennis, often hitting against a backboard for hours or playing pickup games with his brothers. "If he didn't get an audition," says Pat, "he'd just go out and play."

But one of those rejections led him to turn tennis from a hobby into a career. He was devastated after losing a role opposite Ali MacGraw in Players, a 1979 love story about a wunderkind tennis player, to Dean Paul Martin, Dean's son, who played on the UCLA team. "My friend Tommy Cook wrote the original story for me," Van Patten says, recalling his disappointment. It was then that "tennis became a passion. I said, 'I'm going to make the pro tour. I want to beat these guys and I think I can do it.' "

Within 10 months, the self-taught player metamorphosed from an un-ranked amateur into one of the 35 best players in the world. That same year, 1979, he became the Association of Tennis Professionals' Newcomer of the Year. In 1981 he beat Vitas Gerulaitis and John McEnroe in a Tokyo tournament, raising his ranking to 26th. "I'm still flabbergasted," his father says. "I had no idea he was going to become a monster like that." His success, though, exacted a severe and unexpected price.

By 1985, a burned-out Van Patten had grown fearful of the crowds he had lived with so long. "It started on court," he says. "Then I got to the point where I basically wanted to stay in one place and couldn't be in any kind of pressure situation or public place without feeling this anxiety. I'd sweat and get dizzy, like I was going to faint. I thought I was going nuts." His brother James likens the eight years on the tennis circuit to "watching him leave and come back looking like he'd been through Vietnam."

His doctor prescribed Prozac, and though Van Patten thought that he was "never going to function again as a normal guy," he stopped taking the pills after only a few days because he feared becoming dependent. Instead, Van Patten, who was raised Catholic, treated himself by reading the Bible and medical texts, and praying: "I said, 'Dear Lord, get me out of this and I'll never ever complain about anything.' "

It took two years, but "gradually things turned around," says Van Patten, who still plays tennis every day. "I got strength from somewhere and helped myself through that power. Now I feel 100 percent better." Besides producing a new movie, Sharpe, the story of a poker player seeking his fortune in Los Angeles, Van Patten is looking forward to another season of Baywatch—where, he says, "in between takes I'm jumping in the ocean, working on my tan"—and smiling about the cards life has dealt him.

CALVIN BAKER
LEAH FELDON-MITCHELL in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Feldon-Mitchell.