Goodbye Gidget, Hello Heather: James Darren Catches a New Wave of Fans on T.J. Hooker

updated 12/05/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/05/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

If only Gidget could see him now. As the police car slams to a halt, James Darren leaps out, gun drawn, gaze steady. With partner Heather Locklear providing backup, he orders two TV thugs to a freezing halt. As the latest addition to T.J. Hooker, ABC's tribute to Adam-12, Darren is suddenly familiar with street crime and shrieking sirens. As far as he is concerned, the series is welcome, steady income for a onetime leader of the teen-idol pack. "I get panicky when I don't work," says Darren, 47, whose hair is still as dark as his eyes. "I like to feel like a normal person with a normal job." And a job on T.J. Hooker might finally erase the memory of his riding a wave into the arms of Sandra Dee. "I get disappointed," he says, "when someone doesn't know me from other things I've done."

Darren owes his new visibility in part to an old friend, Hooker producer Rick Husky, who got his pal a guest appearance on the show last season. Soon thereafter, Husky was dining with Darren and his wife, Evy, who was weary of her husband's nightclub tours. "Why don't you write something for him so he can stay home?" she asked. Before hiring Darren, however, Husky sounded out series star William Shatner. With Shatner's approval, the role of Officer Jim Corrigan was fashioned for Darren, although "I'm an Italian playing an Irishman," he says with a laugh. It's not the part but the awkwardness of joining a hit series that bugs Darren. "You have to jump right in," he says. "You have to make love to a woman you've never met before and be great buddies with a stranger."

Although he's now playing a cop, as a kid Darren was just as likely to cause trouble as to cool it. The son of immigrants, James spent more of his Philadelphia childhood on the streets than in school. "I was a Dennis the Menace sort, not a bad kid," he recalls. At 16, he quit school and three years later was discovered by talent scout Joyce Selznick.

As Moondoggie, the dedicated surfer in Gidget, Darren was soon being hounded by swarms of frenzied girls. "One time in San Francisco," he remembers, "I was on a dance-party TV show and hundreds of girls mobbed the studio, took the glass door right off, dragged me outside, down on the ground, pulling hairs out of my head for souvenirs. I was terrified. Tears were streaming down my face from the pain of having my hair pulled out."

After the teens stopped screaming, he cultivated a more mature image and a singing career. "But I felt uncomfortable before a live audience," he says, and Darren returned to the camera, doing movies (The Guns of Navarone and 17 forgettable others) and a short-lived TV series, The Time Tunnel. When the show flopped, he went to work as Buddy Hackett's opening act, which included being a straight man to the comic. "I was a moron at first," says Darren. "Buddy told me, 'Do one thing. Just be honest. Just be yourself.' "

That advice was not easily taken in Darren's offstage life. As a teenager in Philly, his sweetheart was Gloria Terlitzky, whose father objected to a Catholic boy romancing a Jewish girl. "When I dated her," James says, "I used the name Jay because I thought it sounded Jewish. I actually pretended I was Jewish." The couple subsequently eloped. Darren's son from that marriage, James Moret, 26, a Century City lawyer, chose to adopt his stepfather's name and his mother's Jewish faith. "To me, religion is the least important thing in relationships," says Darren, still a practicing Catholic. "It causes trouble—wars and conflicts."

In 1958 James was divorced by Gloria and two years later married Evy Norlund, Miss Denmark of 1958. The couple have two sons, Christian, 23 and Anthony, 19. Darren and his wife share a Beverly Hills home with such movie-star amenities as a sauna, gym, five sports cars and two motorcycles. "I like nothing better than to put my motorcycle on the back of a truck and take off for the hills," he says.

Still, for Darren, there's no place like his first home, Philadelphia. "I have such a craving for my old neighborhood," he says. "There's never been a time when I've not gone back." When he returns he frequents his old haunts for his favorite meals. "I like to go to the Café Lido, Ralph's and Palumbo's, where I started singing as a kid, and eat pasta—of any kind. In fact, if I knew my time was running out, I'd do exactly what I want to do, which is eat all the pasta I want, drink all the wine I want and live in Philadelphia." Somehow, it would seem more appropriate to surf off into the sunset.

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