Arkansas Politics Were Too Small a Pond for Gil Gerard, but Is Buck Rogers Better?

updated 04/30/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/30/1979 01:00AM

In hindsight, the luckiest thing that ever happened to Gil Gerard was having his midlife crisis, prematurely, at 26. That was 10 years ago, but Gerard was already a rising hotshot in his native Arkansas—vice-president of a chemical firm, an adviser to the late Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller and, as he puts it, "in the circles of power." Then one day Gil heard the song Is That All There Is?, he relates, "and something hit me between the eyes. I realized that playing golf and doing what I was doing was not what I wanted for the rest of my life."

But what was? The Peace Corps? Elective politics? Nope, Gerard took a dicier leap out of Little Rock and this month finally seemed to make it. It is Gil's hunky hulk that appears in Universal's most mercilessly promoted and widest release ever (1,550 movie houses)—he stars as the title character in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. The movie, based on the old comic strip and Buster Crabbe serial, is a corny blend of derring-do, hi-tech spacial effects and talking robots. It sounded all too familiar to the reviewers ("lackluster" was one of the kinder judgments), but Buck nonetheless grossed $10 million in its first week, a quicker getaway than Star Wars.

Gerard had previously made his way in TV commercials (Coca-Cola, Campbell's Soup, et al) and soaps (The Doctors) before producer Glen Larson cast him in Buck Rogers, originally conceived as a TV miniseries in the U.S. and a movie abroad. "I wanted it to be Burt Reynolds or James Bond meets the 25th century," Larson recalls. When he tried an audience-response preview, "The needles went wild with Gerard. So we cut and edited around him." Larson then decided it was too good to waste on TV.

The son of a Little Rock salesman father and ex-college instructor mother (whose full-time occupation now is entering contests), Gerard was "bitten by the acting bug" when he fell off an elephant—played by two other boys—in a Cub Scout skit. He studied at Arkansas State Teachers College as a premed but dropped out just prior to graduation and talked his way into the job with the chemical company. That led to brain-trusting for the governor.

Gil gave it all up to move to New York. While breaking into acting, he was fired from a bartending job after one hour for the unpardonable gaffe of not knowing what "a Perrier" meant. Later, driving a taxi, Gerard was urged by a customer to try out as an extra in Love Story. That bit ended on the cutting room floor, but, Gil shrugs, "I always knew I was an actor cut out for leading roles." He played a homosexual in the 1971 bomb Some of My Best Friends Are...before becoming a soap heartthrob for two years as Dr. Alan Stewart on The Doctors.

Twice divorced—one eight-month quickie and a seven-year effort that fell through two years ago—Gerard now shares his two-bedroom Burbank apartment with Donna Howard, 21, a former medical assistant who attends real estate school. They are househunting in their Mercedes 450 SL, as well as working on equestrian dressage, acrobatics, poetry (his) and hill climbing. But no social climbing. "I hate to work a party in the Hollywood sense," Gil grouses. "It's so boring."

Success—and a six-figure income—is another matter. NBC, he hears, is again interested in Buck as a TV series. Meanwhile, Gerard is taking the precaution of removing from the market his only previous movie lead—a grade-B white lightnin' flick he co-produced called Hooch—in anticipation of a rerelease campaign exploiting his own newly billable name. "I can't help thinking about the possibility of super-stardom," he admits. "Everyone does." And even if Gil becomes just this year's Dirk (Battlestar Galactica) Benedict, his fiancée Donna isn't complaining. "For us," she sighs, "every day is Saturday."

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