04/11/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
KEN WAHL IS ON WESTWOOD BOULEVARD in Los Angeles, gazing down fondly at the love of his life: Aphrodite Christine. That's the pet name he has bestowed on the 875,000 black 488ci V10 Viper he bought last December. It is one of only 911 models in existence, and one of only five in black. A well-groomed woman of a certain age rolls down the window of her red Toyota and stares approvingly at the former star of TV's Wiseguy. "It is you, isn't it?" she says, smiling. "My, you look even better in real life."
Wahl's admirer may or may not have noticed that he has added about 20 pounds to his 6'3" frame, but otherwise the black-leather, street-macho look hasn't changed. Still, Wahl sightings have not been all that common since 1990, when he walked away from his role as federal undercover agent Vinnie Terranova in the cult-hit CBS series. Only now is he turning up again on screens large and small. He has an abbreviated part in a romantic comedy, The Favor, opening late this month (although because of studio financial troubles the 1990 film is only now being distributed). And he recently finished filming a thriller for CBS, Search for Grace.
Four years ago the notion that Wahl might do a quick fade wouldn't have shocked many of his fans. He always had a Robert Mitchum-like disdain for stardom ("I'm an auto mechanic who acts," he says) and little respect for Hollywood decorum (he had publicly dissed Bette Midler while they were filming the 1982 flop Jinxed!). As for his private life, that was considerably more private than most—and still is. (Of his 11 siblings, Wahl, 35, the Chicago-born son of an auto mechanic father and a waitress mother, lets slip the name of only one: Chuck, who Wahl says has accompanied him on road trips.) But late last year, a tabloid printed a macabre rumor that the actor was on the verge of dying from an inoperable brain tumor.
Wahl says the story is untrue and professes amusement. "The rumors didn't annoy me. I think tabloids are comical and I don't take them seriously." Wahl has a completely different story to tell, and Aphrodite Christine is its conclusion. "I bought this car as a celebration of coming back to life," says Wahl. "I was a dead guy for a year and a half."
During part of that time he was comatose, he says, then awoke to find his arms and legs paralyzed and his body in constant, sometimes excruciating pain. Beyond that, getting him to spell out what it was that nearly dispatched him to eternity turns out to be an exercise in frustration.
Wahl says his ordeal began with a harrowing traffic accident. On March 29, 1992, at 2:30 a.m., he was riding his Harley Davidson on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. He was not speeding, nor had he been drinking, Wahl says (and yes, he adds, he was wearing a helmet). Suddenly, he reports, an approaching car cut him off, making an unsignaled left turn into the parking lot of a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant.
"I guess the clown couldn't wait an extra three seconds to get his french fries," deadpans Wahl, who had previously taken home 187 stitches in his scalp following a motorcycle accident 10 years ago. "Boom! That was it. When I woke up in the hospital, the first thing I saw was tubes and wires. I thought it was about an hour later. It was a month later."
He totes up the damage: Besides being comatose for four weeks, he suffered a concussion, a broken neck and spinal-cord damage. Three of his vertebrae had been broken, he says, one of them so severely that surgeons had lo reconstruct it using bone from his right hip. "I fell like hell for a year and a half," he says of his injuries. For the first two months, he reports, he was quadriplegic; it took another four months before he was able to walk again. Wahl says he was nursed by a woman he will identify only as his "Angel of Mercy." Now, he says, his sole therapy is working out with weights. "But I will probably be in pain for the rest of my life," he says.
There seems to be no question that Wahl had a serious medical problem, but PEOPLE could not confirm any record of the crash, and Malibu police deputy Robert Evans frankly doubts it ever happened. "We couldn't have missed an accident of that magnitude," he says. "I can tell you the name of every celebrity who's had an accident around here in the last few years, and Mr. Wahl isn't one of them." Wahl, questioned about this, initially declines to respond. Later he phones to say that he has friends in the California Highway Patrol who kept the wreck quiet. Another friend, publicist Mary Ann Ridini, suggests the accident is probably on the books under Wahl's "real name," but refuses to say what that is.
His ex-wife, former Penthouse Pet Corinne Alphen, 39—-who divorced Wahl in 1991 after seven years of marriage and now lives in Sarasota, Fla., with their son, Raymond, 10—says she visited Wahl when he was hospitalized, but neither she, Wahl, his business manager, Hank Levine, nor anyone else contacted for this story will identify where he stayed. (Why? Because, says Wahl, he is suing the hospital.) Alphen says that Wahl underwent "a very serious operation. He was in a neck brace for months and on a morphine drip." She eventually look him home to a place she was renting in Beverly Hills at the time and looked after him as he recuperated.
Curiously, when asked when and how she learned of Wahl's accident, she mistakenly assumes the question refers to the 1984 motorcycle mishap ("Kenny had an accident when we were first married..."). Then Alphen defers to her former spouse, visiting at the time in Sarasota. Says Wahl: "I didn't let her know at first. She knows nothing about the  accident." Yet the actor's former personal assistant, Terry Newton, says that Alphen called to notify him of the '92 accident the day after it happened.
A more detailed version of events is provided by Jan Olmer, Wahl's former Wiseguy hairdresser in Vancouver, B.C., where the show was filmed. She says Wahl's 1992 surgery was necessary because of deterioration caused by the earlier motorcycle accident. "That was basically how it started," says Olmer. "After his motorcycle accident, [his] disks weren't right. He had pain for a long time."
Then, says Olmer, about a week before the surgery that Wahl says was the result of his Pacific Coast Highway crash, he told her that he'd fallen down a flight of stairs.
"They took him right into the hospital," she says. Though she never visited him there, Olmer says Wahl kept in touch twice a week by phone. "It was a dreadful, horrible operation," she reports, and it had to be performed again weeks later, she says. "You really can't lift anything for about six months after that operation," explains Olmer, who says she has had similar surgery. "And of course he did because he won't listen; he's stubborn."
Wahl, upon further questioning, says he did indeed have a second go on the operating table. But he did not respond to PEOPLE's inquiries about the reported tumble on the stairs. However, Harley Kozak, his costar in The Favor, says he told her %story similar to Olmer's. "He had fallen down a staircase in someone's house in Malibu," she says. "It was just one of those freaky accidents—the early morning dew making it slippery."
Well, what gives? Is Wahl just living up lo the title of his old TV series? Wahl's friends insist he has always been straight with them. "He is a very true person," says Olmer. And yet, concedes his former aide, Newton, "he's a mystery. He keeps things close, and it's hard lo get through to him sometimes."
Wahl apparently wouldn't have it any other way. Asked at one point if he wouldn't be willing—please—lo shed any more light, even the faintest glimmer, on his mysterious life, he growls: "Don't complain about what you don't get. Be happy with what you do have."
JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles