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The Doctor Is in (Again)

updated 12/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

SINCE ITS DEBUT IN 1965, EVERY EPISODE of NBC's Days of Our Lives has opened with the same incantation: "Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives." And for 26 years, the voice behind that cautionary reminder has been the same: the sonorous baritone of Macdonald Carey—the series' sage patriarch, Dr. Tom Horton. But for Carey, 78, the message took on a special urgency last Sept. 19 when he underwent surgery at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica to remove a small malignant tumor on his left lung. Out for seven weeks, the still recuperating Carey resumed taping episodes Oct. 30 and returned to the air Nov. 29. His comeback was heralded by a poignant cast party. "Everyone was so relieved and happy to see him," says Frances Reid, who plays Dr. Horton's wife, Alice.

As befits his TV image, Carey was almost clinical about his illness. "If it had sprouted tentacles around the edges," he says of the 3-mm growth, "that's when I would have really started to worry about it." Since the growth was completely removed, chemotherapy was not required, and his doctors are optimistic that his disease isn't likely to return. But the recovery period, which is being spent primarily at his modest Beverly Hills house, is the most challenging part of his ordeal. "For someone who's as active as I am, it's a booore," croons Carey, who is relieved to be free of the small forest of floral arrangements he received. "A great mass of flowers—bad psychological vibes," he says.

Carey's trauma is only the latest wrench in a life that could supply a soap like Days with a decade's worth of story lines. For much of his life, the actor was an alcoholic. His only marriage, to aspiring actress Betty Heckscher, the mother of his six children, ended, after 26 years, in 1969. "She came to a point of intolerance and just wouldn't take any more," he says of the drinking that contributed to the breakup. (The two still talk occasionally; Betty, now 74 and a real estate agent, has remarried twice.) Three years before the divorce, his second daughter, Lisa, was diagnosed as schizophrenic. "She started hearing voices and said that somebody was coming to get her," Carey recalls. Through the years, Lisa, now 42, has been treated both in hospitals and at home; two months ago she began taking Clozaril, a drug that has shown some effectiveness in treating schizophrenia. Carey, who visits Lisa weekly, is frank about the effect her illness had on his drinking: "Lisa was just another excuse to get drunk."

The son of Charles Carey, a business manager and banker, and his wife, Elizabeth, a violin teacher, Carey grew up one of three siblings in Sioux City, Iowa. There he got his first taste of both acting—at age 6, as Simple Simon in a Mother Goose play—and alcohol. Both hooked him. In high school, drunkenness "was a rite of passage," he says, "seeing how many spiked beers you could drink." Despite his worsening alcoholism. Carey's career grew and flourished; he has appeared in 65 films and many Broadway plays and radio shows. Eventually, though, his behavior caught up with him most dramatically on the set of Days. "It was just awful," says Reid. "He would come in with these massive hangovers, and he would try not to start to drink. Then he would get the shakes." Carey says he doesn't remember those episodes, but does remember the day—Jan. 8, 1982—he quit drinking. "I suddenly realized that it was affecting my work so directly that even I had to notice." Later that day he entered a treatment program.

One support that has helped Carey through his ordeal has been Lois Kraines, his girlfriend of 18 years. "He is my best friend and I am his," says Kraines, 63. The couple have pondered marriage, but Kraines didn't want to wed until her two children from a previous marriage were grown, and by that time Carey's ways were set. "I'm very selfish," he says (the two maintain separate homes). "A bachelor gets to be this way." Still, he adds, "She's just always been there for me."

These days, that means speeding Carey's postsurgery recovery with homemade chicken stew and pulling up with his natural impatience. Carey would like to get back to the album of show tunes he hopes to record; he is writing his fourth book of poetry (Carey has published three poetry books already, as well as, last February, his autobiography, The Days of My Life) and swimming 40 laps a day in his backyard pool. As ever, Carey is itching to move ahead. "If you think you're a complete product in life, forget yourself," he says. "Hopefully there's something better around the bend."

JOHN TAYMAN
KRISTINA JOHNSON in Los Angeles

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