In Movies as Well as Life, Tim Matheson Reaches More Hearts Than Animal House Brother John Belushi

updated 08/27/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Actor Tim Matheson became a legend in Animal House and in fraternities across America when, as "Otter," he made not the dean's list but the dean's wife. Matheson solemnly professes to hate that mindless, womanizing stereotype. He points out that he endorses the Equal Rights Amendment, built a solar-heated home (in Malibu), and that the National Lampoon movie that established him was really a political statement on the Vietnam era. "We're often trapped by the images people have of us," observes Tim, referring not only to himself but also to ultra-gross Animal House brother John Belushi. "He's nice and sensitive and still a friend."

Indeed, Matheson, 31, has since appeared in a gutter ball of a bowling movie, Dreamer, and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, a Disney production (may Walt rest in peace), en route to a reunion with Belushi in Steven Spielberg's World War II comedy, 1941. Once again Matheson plays a lothario and confesses that on the flip side of his high-mindedness, "I'm having fun with the lady-killer image."

Face it: He always has. "I never hated girls," Tim says. "I remember necking in first grade." He also married young, at 21, but after two years "it just didn't work out" with soap actress Jennifer (Another World) Leak. "We're still friendly, though." An attempt at a live-in relationship with a photographer's assistant recently crumbled and Matheson is again on the loose—somewhat uncomfortably. "After a while what do you do—go out with a different girl every night or have something more substantial?" he asks. "I come from a broken home and I feel impelled to find some sense of stability I didn't have as a child."

That was in L.A., and when Tim was 6, his parents divorced. His father was a pilot, now retired in Scottsdale, Ariz. His mother worked as a municipal court clerk to help support her kids (Matheson's older sister is now a law student). Tim did plays on the patio with a friend, then followed him to acting lessons at 10. That led to guest spots on TV series like Leave It to Beaver and My Three Sons and movie roles as a son of one star after another: Henry Fonda (Yours, Mine and Ours), Dick Van Dyke (Divorce American Style) and Jackie Gleason (How to Commit Marriage).

Acting "made school seem pretty inconsequential," Matheson found. He blames insufficient educational challenge, quoting Buckminster Fuller theories and adding that "by junior high school, all you can think of is the girl with the breasts." Matheson dropped out of Cal State-Northridge after a semester as soon as he won continuing roles on The Virginian and Bonanza. After starring in NBC's short-lived The Quest, he decided TV acting was "like eating fast food—you forget there's any other kind." Tim went back to stage roles from Shakespeare (Romeo, naturally) to Molière before taking on his first comedy lead in Shaw's Man of Destiny. "It was thrilling but scary—if people don't laugh you feel devastated. If I hadn't done Man of Destiny, I wouldn't have done Animal House." Now eyeing Broadway, he's scouting a part-time New York pad and has rented out his solar home (partially because the drive was too long).

Meanwhile Spielberg, whose films Matheson calls "an actor's heaven," wants him for his next, and Tim is renovating a cottage on the old Barrymore estate in Hollywood Hills. He does get back to Malibu to ride horses with Spielberg's lady, actress Amy Irving, and play tennis. This month he will be assistant boatman for a nine-day white-water raft trip in Utah's Desolation Canyon. "I never did these things as a kid," he says, "because I had no father doing them with me.

"The money and recognition of stardom are nice, but freedom is what it means," exults Matheson. Then he slices open an envelope and with a broad smile pulls out his new credit card from Bloomingdale's.

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