At Full Gallop

updated 11/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

WILLIAM DIVANE'S GOLF BALL IS HEADING for trouble. On a cool desert morning at the PGA West country club in La Quinta, Calif., not far from the actor's 140-acre horse ranch, the ball flies over a small lake, bound for a dunking. But then, inexplicably, it makes a curve, landing in the middle of the fairway.

The familiar grin explodes in the desert sun. Bill Devane, swathed in chinos and a green polo shirt, nods as if he expected such good fortune. He may not do things the textbook way, hut by God he gets the job done.

There have been some nasty sand traps along the way—a penchant for dicey financial investments and an unfortunate tendency to criticize industry honchos top the list—but currently, Devane is at the peak of his acting game. On Oct. 27 he will reunite with his former Knots Landing wife, Donna Mills, in the CBS movie The President's Child, playing a ruthless political adviser. Two nights later he will tee off his 10th season as Knots' Greg Sumner, prime-time's most odiously accomplished businessman-Lothario since J.R. Ewing.

Despite the annual parade of young hunks (Peter Reckell, Bruce Greenwood, Sam Behrens) on Knots, the 53-year-old Devane retains a silver-maned appeal on the set and on the street. Devane-as-Sumner has seduced both the nubile Paige Matheson (Nicollette Sheridan) and her foxy mom, Anne (Michelle Phillips). "He radiates something," says Knots costar and sometime director Michele Lee. "We go to the same hairdresser, who says he has to sit on women to keep them from craning their necks to gel a glimpse of Bill."

Devane is too busy to worry about the adulation. At the ranch there are 120 boarding horses and 25 polo ponies to care for. (An avid polo player, Devane broke his collarbone in a fall last year.) Both Devane children are involved in the family businesses. Son Jake, 24, manages the equine operations, and Josh, 28, directs Fab's Italian Kitchen, the family restaurant. Bill's wife of 30 years, Eugenie, 52, runs a gift shop in a nearby family-owned marketplace. The Sumnerian miniconglomerate bespeaks Devane's restless, if erratic, entrepreneurial streak. "He seems to get himself in over his head," says Mills. "But that's what he enjoys." Devane admits to the occasional plunge. He even managed to lose money investing in the hit Superman films. ("I forget how it worked out," he says, "but we didn't do well.")

Amid the ups and downs, family is central. "When we were young," remembers Josh, "Dad was there with us in desert motocross races. And when Jake and I were in high-school basketball, he and mom were at practically every game."

For Devane there were few such middle-class niceties growing up in working-class Albany, N.Y., as the second of three children of Joe Devane, a chauffeur, and his wife, Kate, a waitress. Street-tough and lippy, abrasive Bill had to attend three different grade schools and four high schools before graduating in 1958. "I had trouble with authority," he says. "Still do." After a stint as an apprentice electrician, he moved to New York City to try acting. "I had been in a school play, and the alternative [being an electrician] didn't interest me," he says. There he met Florida-reared Eugenie McCabe in acting classes. "I knew he was going to make something of his life," she says. They married in 1962, and to help support them, she forsook her dramatic career to take steady work as a secretary.

After several minor stage roles—and cab driving to make ends meet—Devane was noticed by Warren Beatty in Broadway's 1966 anti-LBJ satire MacBird, which landed the actor his first Hollywood role in 1971s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Ironically, his most famous (and Emmy-nominated) part, as John F. Kennedy in ABC's 1974 movie The Missiles of October, was both a blessing and a curse. Typecast as JFK for his memorable performance, he was passed over for meaty lead roles in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now (settling for character parts in Marathon Man and other films).

Still, as his star slowly rose, Devane's instinct for control nearly smothered his fledgling career. Angered by the production values (and low ratings) of his short-lived 1979 series From Here to Eternity, Devane badgered network executives for fresh writers and directors, a tactic most actors wisely avoid. Although NBC gave him what he wanted, the show flopped, and Devane took the rap. "It killed him." says longtime pal, actor M. Emmet Walsh. "In this town a rogue elephant is not tolerated." In the mid-'80s, Devane recalled, "No one would take a chance on me [for big roles]." Admitting he "made a mess of things," Devane says, "I've atoned for my mistakes."

Since he landed Knots in 1983, Devane also has relaxed and savored success. "When I go to bed every night, I go 'Shhhhh,' " so as not to anger the gods of fate with his good fortune. After all, he says, "most of the guys I grew up with are in jail. They've got to trade a carton of Marlboros just to watch me on Knots."

TOM CUNNEFF in La Quinta

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