Heading to dinner in L.A. with his wife, Maylo Upton, and son Christopher, 27, on Jan. 7, Willie Aames was approached by a man with a handgun. "He yelled, 'Which one of you wants to die?'" says Aames, who'd just finished filming Celebrity Fit Club: Boot Camp for VH1. "I remained calm, moved closer, and he started backing off." The would-be thief ran away, and Aames says, "I never once felt frightened."

Maybe it was his recent training—or maybe it was all those years of facing far worse. In his new memoir Grace Is Enough, which he coauthored with Upton, the onetime teen heartthrob (Eight Is Enough, Charles in Charge) reveals a life saga shocking even by child-star horror story standards: sexual abuse, drug problems and attempts to hang himself as a young child. "When you're a celebrity, people think they know you, but they don't have a clue," says Aames, 47. Now sober, the born-again Christian is living a determinedly un-Hollywood life in Olathe, Kans., with Upton, 46, and their 17-year-old daughter Harleigh. "I wanted to lay it all out there."

Growing up as the youngest of four in Costa Mesa, Calif., Aames says he "was never comfortable with who I was." Desperate for attention from his stoic firefighter father, he remembers rigging a rope to his backyard fence at age 3 or 4 and trying to hang himself. "I was turning purple when my mom found me," he says. "Nobody ever said a thing. It's how my family dealt: 'Don't encourage him.'"

He did find encouragement from a fourth-grade teacher's boyfriend, who saw him hamming it up and suggested he get an agent. He landed a spot in an ad for Phillips 66, but soon there was more trauma. A man he met while fishing invited the 11-year-old to a drive-in movie and molested him. "I can still feel the stubble of beard that scratched until I was nearly raw," Aames writes. Even his wife, a former actress who tells her own story of childhood rape in Grace, "didn't know until I read the book," she says.

Aames was soon drinking heavily. When he landed a spot on Eight at 15, he and costar Grant Goodeve became drinking buddies. Next he got into marijuana, then cocaine. After moving into his own house at 18, "I was using six days in a row," he says. "There were weeks I couldn't put things in chronological order."

In 1979 he married Vicki Weatherman, a pretty brunette he barely knew, to spite his parents. Though his son Christopher (now a rock band bass player) was born six months later, Aames continued seeing other women and using. It was 1984's Wired, about John Belushi's fatal overdose, that provided a wake-up call. "It hit me," he writes. "I was going to die." He entered a 12-step program, found religion and met Upton not long after his first marriage had crumbled. "We were close from the start," says Upton, who had her own problems with cocaine and crystal meth. Aames helped her get clean, and the pair wed in '86.

Two decades later, they still take care of each other. Upton helped Aames kick a painkiller addiction after he was injured playing the Christian superhero Bibleman in a traveling show; Aames helps Upton, who has lupus, through her health crises. Fame is behind him, and that's how he likes it. "Since I was 9, I'd been told what to say, what to think," he says. "I plan to spend the second half of my life free." He smiles. "I've never been happier."

  • Contributors:
  • Pam Grout/Olathe.