Stranded in Orbit by His Addictions, Former Buck Rogers Gil Gerard Battles His Way Back to E.a.r.t.h.

updated 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

There are no second acts in American lives," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. The novelist, of course, never met actor Gil Gerard, whose crises, sea changes, recoveries and rebounds have been going on, quite successfully, thank you, for some two decades. In his latest incarnation, his second as a television star, Gerard, 47, angles his craggy profile at the magnificent sunset in Queensland, Australia, and toasts his return to prime time in the CBS adventure show E.A.R.T.H. Force (Saturdays, 9 P.M. ET) with a glass of ice water. The pulsating sounds of Roxette on the CD wash over the plush furniture of his luxurious on-location apartment, but out on the terrace, where he stretches out in a deck chair, the gentle noise of the South Pacific sparks moody reflections. "It's such a cliché: drugs, booze, bad relationships," he says. "But the reality is that that's what it took for me to gel here."

In the late '70s, it seemed that nothing could abort Gerard's rocket ride to stardom. His campy 1979 sci-fi flick Buck Rogers in the 25th Century opened to a bigger box-office week than Star Wars. A successful spin-off series had a two-year A-OK run on NBC, and Gerard's portrayal of wisecracking, spandex-clad Buck seemed to portend larger roles and bigger budgets. Then, almost without warning, star-ship Gerard crash-landed. His seven-year marriage to actress Connie (Hotel) Sellecca dissolved in a bitter custody battle over their son, Gib. He was also wrestling with major demons: alcohol, drugs and overeating. The 6'2" hunk with the chiseled chest and narrow hips became a 300-lb. hulk, glazed out on ice cream and Chinese food.

These days Gerard, a strapping 220 lbs., has cleaned up his act and put his career back on the launchpad. As Dr. John Harding, surgeon and trauma-care specialist of E.A.R.T.H. Force, he leads a group of environmental crusaders, a kind of righteous A-Team, as they fight polluters. Although the old pro is having a great time Down Under, where production costs are cheap and the scenery spectacular, he keeps his priorities straight. "I like what I'm doing as a human being," he says, "which is more important than what I'm doing as an actor. That's how I make a living, but not who I am."

Identity questions have always bothered Gerard. The Little Rock, Ark., Cub Scout fell in love with acting when he fell off a stage elephant (played by two fellow scouts). But he put his interest on the back burner to satisfy Frank, his knife-salesman father, and his mother. Gladys, a former college instructor with a penchant for entering contests. The youngest of three brothers. Gerard headed for a seminary to become a foreign missionary. "I thought I'd make everyone happy and become a priest," he recalls. "But I. was probably more interested in native women with their bare tops than anything else."

He soon shifted to a premed program but dropped out after three years. His class work, however, was enough to get him hired, and quickly promoted, as an industrial chemist with a Little Rock firm. He became an occasional adviser on chemical manufacturing to Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller. Gerard entered a disastrous marriage to a secretary; it evaporated after eight months. After hearing Peggy Lee's disturbing "Is That All There Is?," Gerard had his first mid-life crisis at age 26; he threw over the security of a promising job to become an actor.

The first person the beginner talked to in New York City was a bank executive, a friend of a friend in whose Manhattan apartment he stayed. Less than a year later, Gerard married her. "Yeah, I'm dangerous in that respect," he says, adding hastily. "Or I used to be." The off-again, on-again union lasted seven years. During that time Gerard made some 450 commercials and for two years played true-blue physician Alan Stewart on the soap opera The Doctors.

After moving to Los Angeles, Gerard landed the part of Buck Rogers in 1978. Along with the money and the celebrity came new love. Friend Carl (Rocky) Weathers introduced Gerard to ex-model Sellecca on an airplane, and two months later they were married. Son Gib (Gilbert Vincent Gerard) was born in 1981. Once again success prompted a life change, this time a destructive one. Gerard's descent into addiction quickened that same year, after his series was canceled. "If Buck Rogers had continued to run he says, "it would simply have postponed the time when I needed to take a look at myself."

Gerard got clean and sober in a self-help program for cocaine abuse modeled on the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. But he still had to face a final, humbling hurdle: compulsive overeating. "I cleaned the decks." he says, "and then the Lone Ranger rode in and kicked my ass in the form of pies and cakes and too much food." Living alone after his divorce from Sellecca, Gerard would often consume double orders of Kung Pao chicken and fried rice, ice cream by the gallon and dozens of Mrs. Field's white chocolate and macadamia cookies.

Roles evaporated as his waistline bulged. Gerard dropped out of sight after his 1986 NBC series Sidekicks, which, he notes with a laugh, "is hard to do when you weigh that much." Although he had tried everything from diet pills to fasting, he couldn't take off enough to get a coveted part in a miniseries, and estimates that he lost $1 million worth of work due to overeating.

He married for a fourth time, a yearlong union with interior designer Bobi Leonard. "Once more I reached out to fix my feelings externally," he says, "and once more someone got hurt because I was selfish." In 1988, Gerard got help for his food addiction in a self-help program called HOW (Honesty. Open-Mindedness, Willingness). The basic problem, he says, was low self-esteem. "I found that I couldn't shove enough drugs, women, cars, stereos, houses, stardom in there to make me feel good. I guess that's why a lot of people overdose—they get to the point where the hole is so big they die."

In Australia these days, more than Gerard's physical recovery is evident. "He's a den mother," says fellow E.A.R. T.H. actor Clayton Rohner of Gerard's professional life. "He understands the business so well, he knows how to use the whole court." While he savors his new life as much as he used to savor chocolate cake, Gerard has one complaint: being separated from Gib, 9, who lives most of the time with Sellecca. Some of the psychic-damage between father and son caused by the divorce has begun to heal, and Gerard's contract stipulates that Gib will be flown to Australia for periodic visits over the next few months of shooting. Says Gerard: "He was here for a month, and it was very hard when he had to leave."

Despite that, Gerard says, "my day-today life is exactly perfect. Some days it's all I can do to handle my ego, other days I'm dealing with something else. It's all a life, and it's all incredible." Blast off. Buck.

—J.D. Reed, Michael Alexander in Queensland

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