From Rock to Roles

updated 12/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

FITTINGLY, MICHAEL DES BARRES GOT his show-business start by letting it all hang out. Before he became one of the original glam-rock fixtures of the early '70s, before he tasted (briefly) the limos-and-ladies excesses of rock stardom with the '80s group Power Station, before he found himself, as he does now, acting on no less than three TV shows simultaneously—before all that, Des Barres was a teenager performing buck naked in a London musical called The Dirtiest Show in Town.

"I was like 18 or 19," says Des Barres, now 43. "I would walk through the West End past strip clubs, and I knew these girls were making more money than me. And I'm doing legitimate theater!"

These days he's confining his overexposure to TV. Des Barres has a recurring role as Martin Mull's lover, Steven, on the ABC sitcom Rose-anne. "He plays it to a T," says his friend, writer-producer and husband-of-the-star Tom Arnold. "He's low-key—we're not doing a joke on gays." Shifting gears and gender preferences, Des Barres also costars on the new syndicated WKRP in Cincinnati as Jack Burns, the wild half of an estranged husband-and-wife drive-time radio team. And he's in his sixth season on ABC's action-adventure series MacGyver as Richard Dean Anderson's evil nemesis, the trained assassin Murdoc. For a guy who chain-smokes and can't stay idle for more than a minute, the pace is perfect. "If I've got nothing to do," says Des Barres, "I'm in a coma."

Offscreen he plays another role, that of father to his son, Nick, 13, by his other claim to fame, Pamela Des Barres. With her 1987 kiss-and-kiss-and-kiss-and-tell autobiography, I'm with the Band, Michael's old flame established herself as the ultimate groupie, having provided, pre-Michael, California comfort to rockers Jimmy Page, Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger, among many others. Separated since 1987, Michael and Pamela, 42, remain friendly. "People say, 'How could you live with the fact that your wife slept with all those guys?' " says Des Barres. "That she had been intimate with Morrison and Jagger made her all the more intriguing."

When they met in New York City in 1974, Pamela Miller, the onetime flower child from Reseda, Calif., found Des Barres to be "a degenerate, drug-taking sex dog." Michael was riding a high—by then sometimes chemically induced—that had begun two years earlier when he donned glitter makeup, feather boas and platform shoes and fronted the glam-rock band Silverhead. "Our biggest hit was some stuff I scored in Seattle," quips Des Barres. That first night Pamela and Michael snorted cocaine, talked about James Dean—Nick's middle name is Dean, in his honor—and fell in love. Never mind that he had married psychiatrist Wendy Hamilton three weeks earlier. He divorced Hamilton two years later, and in 1976 Michael and Pamela wed in a friend's backyard in Laurel Canyon, Calif.

After Silverhead broke up in 1975, Des Barres put together a group called Detective, which went practically nowhere. And by 1978 he "crashed and burned" from the grind of touring, he says. Even away from the rock scene, though, he continued his drug use. "He took whatever he could get his hands or his nose on," says Pamela. One day in 1981, after not seeing Michael for days, Pamela woke up and found him staring out a window, looking "wasted and resigned." That night Michael went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, stopped drinking and drugging, and has been clean and sober since. "It was very tenuous in the beginning," says Pamela. Des Barres doesn't like to talk about it, partly out of fear of sounding pious. "Recovering celebrities are sober for a month, and they think they can do anything," he says.

Des Barres traces his substance abuse back to his boyhood in Hampstead, England. His late father, Augustus, was the Marquis des Barres, holder of a French aristocratic title dating back some 800 years. His mother, Irene, 60, was a British jazz singer. Augustus left her three days after Michael was born, and though the elder Des Barres kept money flowing steadily to his wife and his son, the younger was left embittered. ("A total wastrel," he says of his father.) Michael followed in his footsteps only as far as Repton, a rigid boarding school. "Then I would come home to me mum, who would be with a West Indian saxophone player," he says. Of his teen years, he recalls, "there was always booze and marijuana, so I was introduced to the melodrama of self-destruction early."

At 16, the current Marquis enrolled in drama school in London. "I cannot remember a time when I didn't want to perform for the room, however big," he says. Besides appearing in The Dirtiest Show in Town, Des Barres also acted in a few of the classics (Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet) and in the 1967 film To Sir with Love as one of Sidney Poitier's students. He met composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was then doing Jesus Christ Superstar, and played him his own composition "Will You Finance My Rock and Roll Band?" Lloyd Webber did.

Des Barres didn't really get back into acting again until a 1978 episode of the original CBS version of WKRP, in which he played a stoned-out rocker. In the early '80s he and Pamela entered into an unusual living arrangement—sharing a house in Santa Monica for about a year with Pamela's onetime lover Don Johnson and his then girlfriend, Patti D'Arbanville, and Johnson's former and future wife, Melanie Griffith, and her new husband, Steven (Scarface) Bauer. Recalls Des Barres: "We would sit around and play Trivial Pursuit. All the egos! It was incestuous and close and great." How close? Des Barres gets cagey. "We all loved each other," he says.

In 1985 Des Barres was asked to fill in for Robert Palmer, lead singer of Power Station. Michael was drifting away from Pamela and was once again surrounded by groupies. "The security guards used to hand out the hotel-suite numbers to the pretty girls," he recalls. "Later there would be 40 girls and four guys." When his stint with Power Station ended, Des Barres segued out of music.

Between TV takes now, he relaxes at home, a dark, one-bedroom Hollywood apartment. He meditates, lifts weights and hangs out with Nick, who also lives with his mom in Santa Monica. Socially, Des Barres has slowed down. "I don't have a girlfriend," he says. "Dalliances do occur," safely, mind you. "Life is precious." So is respect. "I can't use girls like tissue paper anymore." Work is now Des Barres's play. "Can you see me drinking a coconut drink on some beach in Hawaii?" he asks. Only in character.

TIM ALLIS
ANDREW ABRAHAMS in Los Angeles

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